China’s former domestic security chief who directed crackdowns on dissidents and others who ran afoul of China’s security services is now himself reportedly under investigation on corruption charges. The emerging case is a rare example of public scrutiny of China’s top leadership. However analysts question whether the investigation of 71-year-old Zhou Yongkang is a real quest to root out malfeasance among present and former senior Chinese officials, or just the latest Beijing power struggle.
Zhou Yongkang, who was Minister of Public Security from 2002 to 2007 and retired in 2012, is said to be under scrutiny for alleged graft, largely connected to activities during his years directing China’s National Petroleum Corporation, and his subsequent term as Minister of Land and Natural Resources. The probe is also said to involve Zhou’s term as the Party Secretary in Sichuan Province. So far Zhou has not been officially charged with any crimes, and officials have yet to confirm that an investigation is even underway.
Zhou’s eldest son, Zhou Bin, is also reportedly under the magnifying glass in this case.
China customarily has its Central Commission for Discipline Inspection investigate high level officials before criminal charges are filed. Media reports say the Commission plans to schedule a meeting soon with journalists where officials may discuss the Zhou case.
One close observer, Pin Ho, CEO of Mirror Books in New York, says Zhou’s stature in the government and party hierarchies compels that this probe be orchestrated from the highest levels.
“The case involves too many people” Pin said. “It involves too many people who are behind the scenes. It is very sensitive because he is the highest level official in the Communist Party of China’s history involved in corruption. It is also the first time in 20 years a case has involved a member of the Politburo’s Standing Committee, breaking the common practice of “not punishing a standing committee member.” For Xi Jinping, this is an extremely difficult decision that requires courage.”
But others assert that President Xi’s actions may well reflect political maneuvering rather than a desire to identify and punish corruption.
Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan is quoted in the Los Angeles Times newspaper as saying “Among all the people I talk to, there is a consensus that this is a power struggle.”
During last August’s trial and conviction of former Chongquing Party Secretary Bo Xiliai, allegations surfaced that Zhou may have used domestic security elements to attempt to cover up the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, who was given a suspended death sentence. Bo Xiliai, and former president Jiang Zemin, are reportedly members of a rival political faction to President Xi. It was during President Jiang’s tenure that Zhou served as land minister and then Sichuan party secretary. Some analysts say this is at the core of the actions being taken against Zhou, including Chinese University of Hong Kong adjunct professor Willy Wo-Lap Lam, who told Bloomberg News “Corruption is a pretext. The main issue is still factional struggle.”
In China’s government and political culture, appearances are very important. And to observer Pin Ho, whatever actions are taken against Zhou will be draped with the appearance of legitimacy:
“I’m more inclined to think that in an effort to strengthen Xi Jinping’s authority and to attempt to rule the country by law, it is very possible that Zhou will be put on a public trial. At least there will be a judicial procedure to a certain degree,” he said.