WASHINGTON - With China’s former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang facing corruption charges after months of investigation, analysts say China is sending a stern message by making him the highest ranking Chinese official to face trial in the past three decades.
The 72-year-old former Minister of Public Security, Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission and member of the Politburo Standing Committee stands accused of bribery, abuse of power, and what is termed “the intentional disclosure of state secrets.” He was expelled from the Communist Party in December.
Zhou’s charges, according to an official statement, are “especially severe.” The statement says he “took advantage of his posts to seek gains for others, and illegally took huge property and assets from others.” Zhou “abused his power, causing huge losses to public property and the interests of the state and the people,” the statement continued.
The formal charging of Zhou came shortly after the National People’s Congress took place in March and his impending trail was announced earlier this month. Premier LI Keqiang told Congress delegates that President Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption will expand and spare no one.
“We will see to it that every instance of corruption, should it be committed high up or lower down, is severely punished,” said Li.
Some analysts see Xi’s purge as directed as much toward neutralizing political rivals and opponents as it is toward punishing those engaging in malfeasance.
“We’ve seen at the top levels, Xi Jinping going after both of the two predecessor governments to try to keep them in check,” RAND analyst Scott Harold told VOA. “These [actions] constantly keep the pressure on those political groupings that are not already loyal to Xi Jinping and post a challenge for the Chinese government.”
Harold said the charges “suggest that what they are looking at is not simply moral failings, or engaging in corrupt activities with financial remuneration as the end goal, but instead, potentially setting up a rival pathway to power for some figure other than Xi Jinping.”
As for who will serve as Zhou’s attorney during his trial, reports, including those from Bloomberg Business, say a prominent Chinese law professor, Gu Yongzhong, has been in discussion with prosecutors about representing Zhou.
“The choice of Gu,” the Bloomberg report said, would “suggest an effort - at least on the surface - to provide Zhou with a lawyer capable of mounting a robust defense during the trial.”
This would be something done to show that “officials seek to show a greater commitment to the rule of law,” the article said.
Prosecutors gearing up for Zhou’s appearance in court, according to the state newspaper China Daily, may need up to two months to prepare their case against him.
The trial will take place in Tianjin, a city southeast of Beijing. This location, according to Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, follows a pattern of picking locales where the accused does not have established ties and background in an effort to ensure the judge’s impartiality.
Zhou’s trial is expected to be similar to the one conducted in August 2013 involving former Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai.
“I have a feeling the trial will be a bit like Bo Xilai’s, though I have a feeling Zhou will be much more stony-faced during it,” China analyst Raffaelo Pantucci told VOA via e-mail “I think the eagerness will be to get it done and out of the way, though with great public spectacle as the pinnacle of Xi’s new power,” he added.
Some analysts say Zhou may offer up whatever testimony he feels is needed for his and his family’s survival.
“The real question would be who else does he name?” analyst Harold asked. “If you’re in a situation that Zhou Yongkang finds himself in, fully subject to the mercies of the Chinese interrogation services and at the feet of your chief adversary Xi Jinping, what wouldn’t you admit to in order to save yourself and your family?”
The outcome of Zhou’s trial, according to the Bloomberg report, may well be pre-ordained.
“The party which dictates the outcome of sensitive cases has left little doubt that Zhou will be found guilty,” Bloomberg reported. “He was arrested and expelled from the party in December … his stain must be washed clean.”
China watchers say his punishment will likely match that given Bo Xilai - life in prison.
As for whether Xi’s anti-corruption drive will continue to reach higher, analyst Pantucci said, “The question for me is whether they will really continue to chase down big figures like Zhou, or if this will be the big cherry on the cake."
After that,” he said, “the anti-corruption drive will continue, but maybe, become more of a background story rather than the prominent center-stage piece that it is at the moment.”