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Former Chinese Domestic Security Chief Faces Corruption Probe

FILE - Zhou Yongkang, then Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security, attends a plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China.

For many months, Beijing has been investigating its former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang for alleged corruption.

And in early December, Beijing’s Xinhua news agency announced that Zhou, 72, had been removed from the Chinese Communist Party by the Politburo and his corruption case turned over to the to the nation’s prosecutor’s office.

News reports say Zhou, who was Minister of Public Security from 2002 to 2007 and retired from government in 2012, is accused of taking bribes, especially during his time heading China’s National Petroleum Corporation.

The charges also include abuse of power and violation of state and party secrecy regulations. Additionally, Zhou has been accused of malfeasance during his term as the Chinese Communist Party chief in Sichuan Province before he moved up to the security minister post.

No surprise

Zhou’s arrest comes as no surprise to those who watch China’s political churnings.

China analyst Alex Neill at the Singapore office of the London-based International Institute of Security Studies told VOA that the government already moved against Zhou behind the scenes.

“Oddly enough, the public announcement of his arrest is more of a formality,” Neill said. “Zhou has been under some form of detention for most of 2013 and had likely been subjected to the CCP’s internal investigation, the Shuanggui system, for much of this period. There were rumors that he was already under suspicion at the 2102 Beidaihe leadership retreat.”

China expert Edward Schwarck at the London-based Royal United Services Institute told VOA that Shuanggui is “separate from standard law enforcement procedure in that detainees can be stripped of their rights and assets, and locked up indefinitely.”

Zhou’s formal arrest came after authorities removed his supporters and family members from power positions. China’s tactic was deliberate, according to Raffaelo Pantucci, RUSI’s director of International Security Studies.

“You cannot take down a man like this without first clearing out his support base,” Pantucci told VOA. “If such a push is not handled very sensitively, you are setting some very dangerous precedents that could be used back against you. Also, in this way, you weaken the man, and you get rid of all those loyal to him who might try to use the system to prevent you from moving forward against him.”

Early this year, authorities questioned or arrested some 300 people close to Zhou, including some family members. The state also seized $14.5 billion in assets from them.

In a related development, Petro China Oil Company Vice President Bo Qiliang was fired in June and detained for investigation. The company is a subsidiary of CNPC, the China National Petroleum Corporation, which Zhou headed in the 1990s.

Political purge

While Zhou faces corruption charges, the actions taken against him and his circle are seen by many outsiders as part of a political purge and consolidation of power by China’s President, Xi Jinping. Analysts say Xi has deftly crafted a national anti-corruption campaign to address both economic and political concerns.

“Xi appears to have concluded that he needed to take drastic action against some of the major interest groups impeding economic reform, and to send a signal about who was now in charge,” said Nigel Inkster, a China specialist at IISS’ London office.

Zhou has been linked to former Chongqing Communist Party head Bo Xilai, a political rival of Xi now imprisoned for life on corruption charges.

“Zhou Yongkang was using the capabilities he oversaw to collect intelligence on individual members of the Chinese leadership,” Inkster said. “The same was apparently true for Bo Xilai, through his now disgraced former security chief. Such behavior was seen as going beyond acceptable bounds.”

With Bo in jail, and Zhou detained, analyst Pantucci said others may be implicated.

“There is a question about previous leaders going back to the Jiang (former Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin) days or maybe (former Premiere) Li Peng’s family,” Pantucci said. “The question for me is whether they want to go that far, given the precedents it sets and the possibility of then having to go after people like [former premier] Wen Jibao.

“I have a suspicion that Zhou will be seen as the big tiger that will culminate this push, and held up as an example of how the system has to change,” he added.

But beyond the political side of the anti-corruption campaign appears to be a genuine desire to pull in some of the excesses that have arisen as China has grown into a world economic giant with immense wealth, said China analyst Neil.

“I am told that Xi is so serious about this because he believes genuinely that the legitimacy and survivability of both the CCP and China’s economic renaissance are at stake,” he said. “If the CCP’s mandate of ‘heaven,’ the so-called Beijing consensus comes to an end, Then in his [Xi’s] view China would suffer immeasurably, as would the global economy.”

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.