Investigation of former security chief bold move by China’s president to cement power

Analysis: inquiry into Zhou Yongkang a watershed moment in Chinese politics

Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief, is being investigated for suspected “serious disciplinary violation”. Photograph: Feng Li/Getty Images

Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief, is being investigated for suspected “serious disciplinary violation”. Photograph: Feng Li/Getty Images

Wed, Jul 30, 2014, 01:00

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has built his administration so far around his pledge to root out corruption in the country, whether it involves massive wealth accumulated by the powerful “tigers” of the elite or backhanders palmed over to the “flies” at the bottom of the Communist Party.

Since he made his pledge, in November 2012, tens of thousands of officials have been arrested and he has taken some significant scalps, including Bo Xilai, the former party boss in Dalian and Chongqing who is serving a life sentence for corruption and abuse of power, while his wife, Gu Kailai, is in jail for murder.

And now comes the official announcement of an investigation into Zhou Yongkang, whose links to Mr Bo may be part of the reason why he is in trouble now, in what is shaping up to be one on China’s worst scandals.

The announcement was brutally simple and did not even give Mr Zhou the traditional title of “comrade”, merely saying “the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has decided to place Zhou Yongkang under investigation for suspected serious disciplinary violation”.

It comes across as a daring masterstroke by the president as he cements his grip on power, following his appointment over the 18 months as head of the military and head of national security and economic reform panels.

Mr Zhou has not been seen in public since last October, and the investigation into his assets and activities as head of China’s petroleum industry has been has been widely flagged, but the public announcement on Xinhua feels like a watershed in Chinese politics.

Ascent checked
Not since the days of the great purges of the era of founding father chairman Mao Zedong have such senior figures faced censure like this. Mr Zhou was a member of the central committee of the politburo, in charge of state security, and far more powerful than Mr Bo ever was, although who knows how high the one-time rising star in the communist firmament might have risen had his ascent not been so brutally checked?

It has been a seriously busy year for the central commission for discipline inspection, the Communist Party watchdog. Over recent months there has been a wave of arrests in Mr Zhou’s power base, indicating the Chinese investigators are specifically targeting his network of influence in the corruption crackdown.

“In the socialist market economy era we must face directly the problems of the benefits of government officials. On the one hand, cadres must be willing to do things, knowing how to do things, be able to do things and not get into trouble,” said an article in the Renmin Luntan (People’s Tribune), an offshoot of the People’s Daily.

“On the other hand, we must adhere to the course of putting private greed into the cage of discipline. The fight against corruption cannot be only limited to investigating cases. The power structure must be changed.”

On the social network Sina Weibo, China’s version of the banned Twitter, a user called Fei Houer wrote how previously he had heard rumours about Mr Zhou’s fate using a virtual private network (VPN), an external server that many Chinese use to get around the system of controls known as the Great Firewall of China.

“Now finally it will be dealt with publicly,” he said, while another commentator, Gu su Xing Hong, wrote: “Now the big tiger has finally come out.”

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