China Briefing

Legal fate of Zhou Yongkang vexes leadership

Party elites appear caught in disagreement over whether ex-security tsar should be prosecuted or given the weight of evidence, merely expelled

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 3:56am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 12:19pm

Intense speculation has been building since late last year mainland authorities would soon make public the results of the official investigation into Zhou Yongkang, one of China's most powerful officials of the past decade, and turn him over to criminal prosecution.

The expectation was fuelled by the detention of several senior officials widely known as his key supporters, men who had risen through the ranks of his power bases - the energy sector and resource-rich Sichuan province.

They include Jiang Jiemin , who was the top regulator of state-owned enterprises and previously the chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation, and at least three of his former secretaries. In addition, a number of Zhou's relatives, including his eldest son, Zhou Bin , have been arrested on corruption charges.

It's a common tactic by anti-graft investigators going after a senior leader to first target close associates and family members.

Zhou was a member of the Communist Party's supreme Politburo Standing Committee, tasked with overseeing national security for a decade before he retired in late 2012. He would be the most senior official to fall on corruption charges since the party came to power in 1949.

Some overseas media, caught up in the fervour, have repeatedly predicted the announcement of Zhou's prosecution was imminent, first at the beginning of the year, then around the Lunar New Year in February, saying it would come before or after the annual sessions of the National People's Congress in March.

The latest prediction is the announcement will be made this month, but there has been little indication the speculation is indeed on solid ground.

So what is going on? Some analysts say the leadership is proceeding cautiously, weighing all the implications, given the deep embarrassment and implication to its legitimacy that a public acknowledgment of Zhou's case would cause. The announcement would require very delicate wording, and that may partly explain the delay.

Over the past few weeks, however, there are credible suggestions the delay appears to be largely caused by a difference of opinion within the party hierarchy over how to proceed with Zhou once preliminary findings of the internal investigation were available. These findings might indicate Zhou is implicit in abuse of power and helping close associates and family members illegally accumulate wealth, all while living a "decadent life". But anti-graft investigators might not have found enough solid evidence to link Zhou directly to bribery and other illegal activities.

There are suggestions he has refused to confess to breaking the law. Zhou appears to have learned from the case against Bo Xilai , a former rising star within the party and widely believed to have been a key political ally. Bo was jailed for life in September on charges of corruption and abuse of power, but during his trial, he insisted he was coerced into confessing.

Some officials are believed to have lobbied that Zhou be treated with leniency, taking as precedent the case against Cheng Weigao, the former party chief of Hebei province. In 2003, Cheng was expelled from the party for using his position to allow his wife and his son to engage in corruption, and over the illegal activities of two former secretaries, including Li Zhen, who was later executed.

Contrary to public expectations at the time Cheng would be publicly prosecuted, he was quietly set free following his expulsion from the party.

It remains unclear how the leadership under President Xi Jinping has reacted to any lobbying, given his repeated pledge his anti-graft war would target not lowly officials - the flies - but also tigers like Zhou.