A former top general was expelled from the Communist Party for alleged corruption and his case handed to prosecutors for investigation, the Politburo announced yesterday.
Xu Caihou , a former vice-chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, is the latest senior military figure implicated in President Xi Jinping's anti-graft campaign.
Along with the decision on Xu, made ahead of the party's 93rd anniversary today, it also expelled three ministerial-ranked officials or state firm executives over allegations of corruption and bribery, Xinhua reported.
All three are closely connected to former security tsar Zhou Yongkang , prompting renewed speculation about whether Zhou's fate would soon be revealed.
A report on the investigation into Xu, who was the No2 career serviceman in the PLA before his retirement, was presented at the Politburo meeting presided over by Xi, Xinhua reported. The case was handed to military prosecutors, it reported.
The 71-year-old Xu, who retired from the commission last year and from the party's decision-making Politburo in 2012, would be the most senior military figure to appear in court for corruption since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
"His case is serious and leaves a vile impact," Xinhua cited a Politburo statement as saying.
"Anyone, no matter what authority and office he holds, will receive serious punishment if violating party discipline and laws. We will never compromise nor show mercy," it said. "The military should not be a hiding place for corrupt people."
The investigation into Xu, launched on March 15, found he had received bribes "personally and through his family members" in exchange for granting promotions in the military.
Dozens of armed police took Xu from his bed at the 301 Military Hospital in Beijing on the day Xinhua said the probe was launched.
An internal briefing among senior military officers said Xu or his family had received more than 35 million yuan (HK$44 million) from the PLA's former deputy logistics chief, Gu Junshan. Gu was charged with several crimes, including bribery and embezzlement, in March.
A source with close ties to the PLA said the investigation into Xu by anti-graft officials had been under way for about a year.
Some officers had even asked President Xi Jinping to push for the death penalty, according to the former officer, who asked not to be named.
"Xu is the biggest tiger in the army. If Xi wants to establish his prestige in the military, he has to bring down Xu," said the colonel, referring to the president's pledge to catch senior and lowly corrupt official - "tigers and flies" - as part of efforts to combat graft.
Xu, who became the vice-chairman of the commission, is believed to be an ally of Zhou and widely viewed as a supporter of disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai , who is serving a life sentence for corruption.
The announcement yesterday ended months of uncertainty over how the authorities would handle Xu, and indicated the party might soon wrap up the investigation against Zhou, reportedly launched last year.
"With people who are close to Zhou being implicated one by one, the anti-graft campaign is taken further towards what we call a big tiger," said Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan. "The decision on Zhou may be made at the party's plenum this year."
Sources earlier said the plenum might be held ahead of its traditional date in September, with discussion on the rule of law the main agenda.
The party yesterday also announced its decision to expel Wang Yongchun , the former deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation; Li Dongsheng , the former vice-minister of public security; and Jiang Jiemin , the former chief regulator of state-owned enterprises.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a professor of political science at City University in Hong Kong, said the president wanted to use Xu's case to prove that he was committed to rooting out corruption.
"Xi needs to establish some significant case to build up the credibility of his campaign."
Xu made his last public appearance on January 20.
During the interval, Xu approached the president several times to speak to him, but was ignored, sources said.
Xu's family is from a rural area near Dalian . He was a PLA political commissar in Jilin and was promoted to the Central Military Commission in 1999. He became vice-chairman in 2004.