China's former Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang in 2007.

China's former Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang in 2007. Photo: Reuters

Sending tremors across China’s political landscape, President Xi Jinping and other party leaders have authorised a corruption inquiry against the powerful former head of the domestic security apparatus, Zhou Yongkang, according to five sources with elite political ties.

It is the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China that such a high-level official has been the focus of a formal corruption investigation, and in pressing his anti-graft crusade to new levels, Mr Xi has broken a longstanding taboo. Mr Zhou was once a member of the Communist Party’s top rung of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, and even retired members of that body have always been spared such scrutiny.

The principle allegations against Mr Zhou emerged from investigations over the past year into accusations of abuse of power and corruption by officials and oil company executives associated with him. Those inquiries have already encircled his son, Zhou Bin, and other family members, the sources said.

Mr Xi and other leaders agreed by early December to put the elder Mr Zhou directly under formal investigation by the party’s commission for rooting out corruption and abuses of power, the sources said. They said a senior official went to Mr Zhou’s home in central Beijing to inform him about the inquiry, and Mr Zhou and his wife, Jia Xiaoye, have since been held under constant guard.

The people who gave the account were an official with a state broadcaster, a former province-level party corruption investigator, a lawyer with family connections to the party elite, a businesswoman with similar ties and a businesswoman who is the granddaughter of a late leader. They all spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the risks of recrimination for discussing sensitive politics.

“It’s not like in the past few months, when he was being secretly investigated and more softly restricted,” the lawyer said. “Now it’s official.”

Mr Xi has amassed imposing power since taking leadership of the party in November.

But even in retirement, Mr Zhou is a potentially potent adversary.

He occupied an extraordinary nexus of state-blessed money and power, even by the standards of Chinese politics. Educated in oilfield exploration, he spent much of his career in the state oil industry and wielded considerable influence over the sector, which expanded rapidly at home and abroad as demand for energy surged with China’s booming economy.

Later, while a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, he oversaw the party’s sprawling security apparatus, with control over police, prosecutors, courts and the main intelligence service. During his watch, the party leadership stressed “stability maintenance” as vital to its survival, and the domestic security budget expanded to overshadow even the military’s. Mr Zhou’s grim, rough-hewed features added to his public image as a politician not to be trifled with.

In taking on Mr Zhou, Mr Xi may risk elite unity if the case falters or ignites dissension among party officials and elders, including the retired president, Jiang Zemin, under whose tenure Mr Zhou became a minister for land and then a province party secretary.

“On the one hand, this would be such a dramatic change from previous practice, and risks generating pushback,” said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on Chinese politics at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “On the other hand, this is a guy who likes to send messages and who has been consistently defying longstanding regime rules of physics now for some time.”

Until now, the highest-ranking politicians subjected to corruption inquiries were serving members of the Politburo, a rung lower than the Standing Committee in the party hierarchy. They included Bo Xilai, an ally of Mr Zhou’s who was sentenced to life in prison in September for taking bribes, for embezzlement and for abuse of power.

It is not yet clear whether Mr Zhou will be prosecuted and punished; internal party inquiries do not necessarily end in criminal charges, even when culpability is found. The government has not made any public announcement about the case, nor has Mr Zhou, who like other senior Chinese politicians is inaccessible to reporters. The decision to investigate Mr Zhou was first reported by overseas Chinese Web news sites, including Mingjing and Boxun, and later by Reuters.

After Mr Xi took leadership of the Communist Party, he vowed to take on corruption both low and high in party ranks – both “flies and tigers.”

Mr Zhou, who turns 71 this month, is undoubtedly a tiger. But his power and reputation for high-handed ruthlessness also brought critics, and he appeared diminished after Mr Bo was detained last year.

After Mr Zhou retired in November 2012, his successor in charge of domestic security was not given a place on the Standing Committee, a move that party insiders said reflected disquiet in the elite over the influence that the position had accumulated under Mr Zhou.

Soon afterward, party anticorruption officials also began removing and investigating a succession of officials and company executives who had career links with Mr Zhou. The first senior official to fall in these investigations was Li Chuncheng, a deputy party chief of Sichuan province, where he had risen through the ranks while Mr Zhou was party secretary from 1999 to 2002.

In the following months, investigators from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party agency responsible for investigating major corruption cases, detained other officials and businessmen from Sichuan. They also opened an investigation into current and former executives of the China National Petroleum Corporation, where Mr Zhou had risen up the party hierarchy. In some cases, they had ties to Mr Zhou’s son, Zhou Bin, who has been questioned in the past months and was detained in recent weeks, according to the sources close to leaders.

The older Mr Zhou’s “real problem is the corruption claims involving his wife and son,” said the former corruption investigator. “Zhou could also be held responsible, even if he didn’t directly participate.”

The Zhou family’s sway within the oil sector could potentially offer many potential sources of illicit wealth, including acquiring rights to operate fields, service contracts, equipment sales and distribution of oil, the former corruption investigator said.

Other critics, including human rights advocates, have said that Mr Zhou’s influence over courts and law-and-order issues was also ripe for abuse. But any inquiry there could be politically volatile, and there has been no string of telltale detentions and investigations in that area that would point to Mr Zhou’s being targeted there.

So far, no formal criminal charges have been announced against any key figures in the allegations. Party discipline investigations can be more wide-ranging than police investigations, and the results need not be made public.

The sources said Mr Zhou was under investigation by a special unit of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Senior police officers were also helping, they said. Usually in China, criminal charges against senior officials are considered only after a party inquiry has recommended legal action.

“They’ve handpicked a number of officials in Beijing to take charge of the case, in order to keep firm control over it,” said the businesswoman who is the granddaughter of a late party leader.

New York Times