Spotlight on Bo's Politburo supporter
The dust has still not settled on the dramatic Bo Xilai affair, despite the party's decision last week to expel him from all posts. Since the first action was taken against him last month, there have been rumours about the political prospects of an even more senior man, Zhou Yongkang, a staunch supporter of Bo, after rumours of an attempted coup and Politburo divisions.
However unlikely it might be, any action against Zhou, a member of the innermost Politburo Standing Committee, would have more significant bearing than that against Bo on the way the world's last major Communist Party-ruled nation evolves.
Zhou, officially ranked last in the nine-member committee, oversees state security and the police. But seasoned China watchers consider him one of the committee's most powerful men. Some pundits have described him as a hardliner, similar to the former US vice-president Dick Cheney. 'He [Zhou] grimaces even when he smiles,' said an analyst who declined to be named.
Rumours, hard facts and insider accounts have all pointed to Zhou's political bond with Bo, though this does not mean that Zhou was personally involved in any of Bo's wrongdoings.
Before Bo's downfall, Zhou was among just a few senior leaders to openly support Bo's leftist campaign in Chongqing. But Bo's policies apparently challenged the vision of China held by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. It is evident that the battle between those represented by the Zhou-Bo faction, looking to China's Maoist past, and those looking to a more democratic future, led by Hu and Wen, has been laid bare.
Party insiders said that Zhou is the only standing committee member to disapprove of the handling of the Bo affair, a claim supported by the fact that Zhou made a last-ditch effort to support Bo a week before the former Chongqing boss' sacking on March 15.
Zhou attended a Chongqing delegation session at the annual National People's Congress on March 8, and spoke highly of the achievements of the municipality, which then received an extremely rare public rebuke from Wen a few days later.
In a widely watched televised news conference on March 14, the day before Bo's dismissal, Wen likened Bo's campaign to the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution.
Party insiders have said that Hu is pushing for prosecutors to not only produce evidence that will prove Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, is guilty of murder, but to unearth proof of wider corruption involving the couple.
They said that while the leadership has had no appetite to discipline Zhou, it has tried to silence anyone attempting to defend the couple. The leadership, through editorials by the official People's Daily and Xinhua, has sent out warnings that no one is above the law.
'This could be a veiled reference to the security chief,' an insider said.
Analysts say pressure is now mounting on Zhou, but this does not mean he will be disciplined or ousted months before his scheduled retirement.
The purging of a Politburo Standing Committee member would have much worse impact than the dismissal of a Politburo member on domestic and international perceptions of the party at a time when the leadership is trying hard to maintain stability and unity to achieve the first smooth power transition via collective consensus without a strongman.