WASHINGTON— In a case that could have wide-ranging implications for the future of China’s leadership the administration of Chinese President Xi Jingping continues to tighten its corruption investigation around former Chinese domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang and his inner circle.
Beijing’s latest move is the seizure of some $14.5 billion in assets from Zhou’s family members and close associates, along with the arrest or questioning of more than 300 of them.
The staggering sum seized is said to larger than any other corruption related action yet taken by Beijing.
Zhou is the highest ranking former Chinese official caught up in President Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown. He has been under house arrest since late 2013, and multiple reports indicate that formal charges against him may be brought up in coming weeks.
One of the most recent officials allied with Zhou caught up in this probe is Ji Wenlin, just removed as vice governor of Hainan province.
Ji held several positions connected to Zhou. During the late 1990’s, he served as a land resources minister and then as an assistant to Zhou when he was the Communist Party’s boss of Sichuan.
While Zhou and others have not faced court proceedings, Chinese law and due process allows for the seizure of their assets.
“Article 117 of the Criminal Procedure Law states that “The People’s Procuratorates and the public security organs, may, as required by investigation crimes, inquire into or freeze criminal suspects’ deposits or remittances according to regulations,” said Georgetown University law professor James Feinerman, an expert in China’s legal structure.
The Chinese law is close to what is on the books in the United States
“There are procedures under U.S. law which provide for the freezing or seizure of assets prior to criminal conviction,” said former U.S. Department of Justice official Nathaniel Edmonds. “Typically, there needs to be a relation [between the seized assets] to a specified unlawful activity which could include corruption or fraud.”
In China, Edmonds said the “vast majority” of corruption cases are conducted by the Ministry of Supervision.
But Asia Fellow Edward Schwarck, with the London-based research organization Royal United Services Institute, said other forces are in play.
“The corruption investigation into Zhou Yongkang,” he said, “is being conducted by a specially created unit led by Beijing’s police chief, Fu Zhenghua – who is a known ally of Xi Jingping.”
Schwarck said that “party members detained for corruption are usually held under a form of extra-legal detention known as shuanggui.”
He said shuanggui is “separate from standard law enforcement procedure in that detainees can be stripped of their rights and assets and locked up indefinitely.”
While much attention and energy is being poured into investigating Zhou and his inner circle, Feinerman said that “There are many others (such as former Premier Wen Jibao) who have never been targeted, but may be equally or more corrupt. Corruption prosecutions are very selective.”
“There is a Chinese proverb about ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkeys,’ which suggests that scapegoating one of many may send a signal to others to clean up their acts,” said Feinerman .
Many observers have framed the corruption crackdown on Zhou and those surrounding him in a political context – arguing that the former security boss was targeted because of his support of opponents to Xi, especially Bo Xilai, who was convicted for corruption and sent to jail for life.
Analyst Schwarck says there is more to it than that.
“The campaign against him [Zhou] also stems from a wider effort by Mr. Xi to eliminate powerful interest groups within China’s state owned enterprises, which are key opponents of the [president’s] economic reform agenda.” Schwarck said. “Given Zhou’s former role as ‘Godfather’ of China’s ‘Big Oil,’ he has been left vulnerable on this front as well.”
Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has called on Xi to ease up on his anti-corruption drive.
Feinerman said “If there is a concern at the top that no one wants to do to Zhou what might come back to haunt them should they fall out of favor, then they might be unwilling to make a huge deal about Zhou himself.”
Analyst Schwarck said “Purging Zhou would be an affront to the longstanding consensus in the Communist Party that senior leaders are ‘off limits.’”
He predicts that “Zhou’s trial could be quite destabilizing, in that other senior party members may begin to question their allegiance to a system that no longer guarantees their security.”
Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed quotes by Edward Schwarck to Nathaniel Edmonds. VOA regrets the error.