A once-feared security chief was arrested by Chinese police yesterday as they launched an investigation into charges ranging from adultery and bribery to leaking state secrets.
Zhou Yongkang was also expelled with immediate effect from the Communist Party.
The developments pave the way for a trial of the most senior figure so far ensnared in president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown and appear to seal the downfall of his most powerful rival.
The square-jawed Zhou, 72, will be the highest official to be prosecuted since the 1981 treason trial of Mao Zedong’s wife and other members of the “Gang of Four” who persecuted opponents during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Although state media say the case is an example of the party’s determination to fight corruption regardless of rank, some analysts say it is part of factional politics in the ruling party’s highest echelons. “The fundamental issue remains the power struggle,” Beijing-based political observer Zhang Lifan said.
The announcement of Zhou’s arrest yesterday is a sign that the party leadership wants to downplay it, Zhang said. An allegation Zhou leaked secrets may give authorities a reason to close the trial and keep dirty politics under wraps, he added.
Zhou had been under internal investigation by the party for “severe disciplinary violations” since last December, a year after he retired from the politburo standing committee. That he was being investigated was made public in July.
“He abused his power to help relatives, mistresses and friends make huge profits from operating businesses, resulting in serious losses of state-owned assets,” the official Xinhua News Agency said.
“Zhou leaked the party’s and country’s secrets,” it added. “He seriously violated self-disciplinary regulations and accepted a large amount of money and properties personally and through his family. Zhou committed adultery with a number of women and traded his power for sex and money.”
Any trial would be expected to conclude with Zhou’s conviction, the outcome agreed among top leaders. Li Cheng, director of the John L Thornton China Centre at Washington-based think-tank Brookings, said Zhou would either get life imprisonment or a suspended death sentence. A line in the official report that investigators discovered other, unspecified crimes indicates Beijing could be negotiating for Zhou’s co-operation during the trial, Li said.
Former members of the powerful politburo standing committee had long been considered off-limits for prosecution. But Xi vowed to go after both low- and high-level officials to purge the corrupt and rebuild public trust.
Zhou had extensive patronage networks in the south-west province of Sichuan, where he was once party boss and controlled the state oil sector, police and courts. More significantly, as China’s security chief, he oversaw the domestic spy agencies, affording access to information on other high-ranking political rivals.