Xi Jinping strengthens his grip with Zhou Yongkang takedown ... but what next?
Taking down a party heavyweight has given the president clout not seen since Deng Xiaoping and energised his anti-graft fight, analysts say
With the launch of the formal investigation into former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, President Xi Jinping has consolidated power in a way that eluded his predecessors.
Xi would have needed a strong consensus among retired and sitting party elites before moving forward with the probe, which marks the first time a Standing Committee member or ex-member has been investigated for "serious violation of disciplines" since the opening up era of the late 1970s.
Although the case sends a message the party will not hold anyone above the law, other past and current members of the committee were unlikely to become a focus of Xi's anti-graft campaign, analysts said.
The president remains limited by the principle of collective leadership, which arose under Deng Xiaoping as a way to end the political chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
But a single case, especially one so high-profile, is enough for Xi, who is the general secretary of the party, to reinforce his message party stars can no longer use their power bases and state-owned firms to accumulate massive wealth - all with impunity.
Watch: China's Xi cementing power with probe into Zhou: analyst
"The crux of the matter is that it shows how far Xi has consolidated his position as the leader of China," said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England.
"Not quite a strongman like Deng Xiaoping , but certainly more than Hu or Jiang managed to achieve," he said, referring to former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin . "This puts Xi in a more powerful position than any leader since Deng."
Xi would have needed a majority from the party elite before moving, and securing that backing might have delayed the announcement, Tsang said.
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The South China Morning Post reported last August that retired and current leaders had agreed to the investigation at their annual seaside resort gathering in Beidaihe.
But the delay in launching the official investigation suggests the complexity of the internal bargaining despite the downfall of one of Zhou's key allies, Bo Xilai , the former party boss of Chongqing .
Analysts said the timing of the announcement indicated party elites had reached consensus on major policy issues before the Beidaihe meeting. "The announcement suggested leaders have finally agreed on major policy issues to be finalised at the summer summit at Beidaihe," said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University. The summit is used to discuss the agenda of upcoming fourth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee, which is said to focus on comprehensive law reforms to stamp out corruption and abuse of power.
Analysts also pointed out that before the formal investigation was announced, the party had dismantled Zhou's power base, which spanned the oil industry, Sichuan province, the Ministry of Public Security and the legal affairs establishment.
Zhou was head of the China National Petroleum Corporation, then Sichuan party boss, and minister of public security before he was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee and put in charge of the police, courts and prosecutors.
The party's anti-graft agency has detained a dozen senior ministerial-level officials with close ties to Zhou. Analysts said the crackdown paved the way for Xi to revamp what he saw as the most corrupt sectors within the system - the state sector and security establishments.
"It shows that politics has really changed in Beijing," said Dr Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.
Brown said Xi might have felt the party's legitimacy was being eroded by members who treated official postings as an opportunity to get rich through their connections with state-owned companies.
"I suppose rules always stand until the time when they are broken, and so just because there was this tradition of Politburo Standing Committee members never being prosecuted, that doesn't mean anything now," Brown said.
"Everything shows Xi regards using the party to make money for clans and networks with disdain. He seems to be operating with a higher political objective, so Zhou is very expendable on this reckoning … [as are the] retired, the networks already decimated by purges so far, and connected to a state sector dying from its own greed," Brown said.
The question remains whether the Zhou investigation is a turning point in government accountability or intended merely as a warning to corrupt cadres."
Only twice before has the Politburo Standing Committee targeted one of their own. In 1968, former president Liu Shaoqi was removed as deputy party chairman in a power struggle with Mao Zedong . Liu was replaced by Marshal Lin Biao, whom Mao stripped of power in 1971.
Both Liu and Lin were ousted for political purposes, while Zhou is being investigated for serious violation of party disciplines. But for the 40 intervening years, the Standing Committee existed largely above the law.
"If using the same criteria, other officials as senior as Zhou should be put under investigation," said Dr Xigen Li, an associate professor at the department of media and communication at City University of Hong Kong. Brown said Xi might feel it was precisely outsiders like Zhou with no family links to the history of the party who have corrupted and twisted its original mission and needed to be expelled.
Overseas media have reported relatives of other party elites had amassed huge wealth. Last year, The New York Times said the family of then-premier Wen Jiabao controlled assets worth at least US$2.7 billion.
Tsang said although Xi had built up immense political capital, he "very much doubted Xi is also targeting other leaders like Wen and Jiang at the moment".
"If there is any real indication of that as a possibility, Wen would have worked closely with Jiang to block the detention of Zhou," Tsang said. "I do not expect other retired PSC members to be put in the same situation as Zhou."
If that happened, Xi would be asserting himself as a strongman, violating the principle of collective leadership established in the post-Deng era. "Xi is asserting himself but he is not a strongman," Tsang said.
Zhou's case sent a powerful message to rank and file members, as well as higher-up officials, that their positions and connections did not equal protection, said Dr Yuan Jingdong, a political scientist at University of Sydney.
"This can also serve to divert or mitigate pent-up societal anger due to the growing gap between the rich and powerful, and the misfortunate and unfairly treated groups," Yuan said. "But to fundamentally redress the problems requires more than putting out fires; it requires introducing effective systems based on the rule of law, and a mechanism to monitor power."
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