How much wealth had Zhou Yongkang's family amassed before the former security tsar's fall?
To link Zhou Yongkang to his family's vast wealth graft investigators must decipher a complex maze of familial connections and circles of influence
Keira Lu Huang and Laura Zhou in Beijing
An unprecedented graft investigation into former top Communist Party official Zhou Yongkang has triggered wild speculation about the massive wealth allegedly amassed by him.
But it is likely that only a small amount of the alleged wealth, if any, can be linked directly to Zhou. As head of the family, Zhou did not get directly involved in business deals. His protection was layers of insulation between himself and the operations.
At least 37 companies, spreading as far as North America, are either owned by Zhou's family or connected to it, according to corporate documents studied by the South China Morning Post. The businesses include oil production, property development, hydropower, tourism and many more. Reuters earlier reported that the total amount of assets held by the family could be as much as 90 billion yuan, although others expressed doubts over the figure.
"If it is really the case, it's horrifying. Scholars have long been saying 'grey income' and money from corruption together account for more than 30 per cent of China's GDP, but that's too much," said Hu Xingdou , a political commentator at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
The name "Zhou Yongkang", however, does not appear in the thousands of pages of corporate documents the Post has studied.
His elder son Zhou Bin, 42, is the one who holds strings of the business empire. Zhan Minli - Zhou Bin's mother-in-law - is the other key player. Zhou's nephew Zhou Feng and his sister-in-law Zhou Lingying also played a part.
Zhan, 72, was the major shareholder of at least nine companies in the Zhous' empire.
She is married to Huang Yusheng, son of a prominent geologist who was closely involved in the discovery in the 1950s of the Daqing oilfield, China's largest and long venerated by the party as a symbol of its achievements.
Zhou Bin, who is now under arrest, operated his businesses mainly through his in-laws, a college roommate and other partners. He tried to remain in the shadows as much as he could.
People who know Zhou Bin are not impressed by his business skills and say he lacks his father's dominating aura. Yet, in about 10 years, he has grown the business from an obscure company registered at a residential apartment address to a conglomerate worth hundreds of millions of yuan, documents show.
With a master's degree in international management studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, Zhou Bin returned to China in the early 2000s, and in 2003 established a company named Beijing Zhongxu Sunshine Technology located in an apartment complex called Majestic Garden close to the Olympic park in Beijing, according to company documents filed to the Beijing government. The property belongs to his mother-in-law Zhan, and was used by Zhou Bin as one of his residences.
The following year, Zhan put up four million yuan to set up another company, Zhongxu Sunshine Energy Technology, taking an 80 per cent stake. The new company then became the main business vehicle for Zhou Bin. Shortly after, it started doing business with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), where Zhou Yongkang had been the de facto boss for a long time, including for a project to upgrade the retail management systems of its 8,000 gas stations in several provinces, according to mainland media. No record of a bidding process could be found.
Sources said his business tactics were usually to acquire government projects cheaply and sell much higher, a technique that could only have come about due to his father's influence.
The magazine Caixin reported that in 2007 and 2008, with help from his former college roommate Mi Xiaodong, Zhou Bin made a profit of more than 500 million yuan by reselling the Changyin and Changqing oil field projects in Shaanxi province, the biggest deal he had been known to make at the time.
"Whether businessmen can successfully get deals like reselling oil fields depends on their personal background. In that case, who can beat Zhou Bin?" Caixin cited a source who once competed against Zhou Bin on projects as saying.
By 2011, Zhongxu Sunshine Energy Technology had total assets of 139 million yuan, and an annual profit of 32.9 million yuan, according to corporate documents.
In Sichuan, where Zhou Yongkang served as the party boss from 2000 to 2002, Zhou Bin entered the hydropower industry as well as property development and tourism projects.
Through his business partner Wu Bing's company, Zhou Bin and Zhan Minli invested in two hydropower stations on the Dadu River.
Annual income from selling electricity from one of the two stations alone could be as much as 900 million yuan per year, according to mainland media.
Zhou Bin also did business with the former Sichuan mining tycoon Liu Han. Liu Han has since been sentenced to death for murder, organising casinos, running a mafia-style gang and illegally selling firearms.
The Post reported previously that Zhou Yongkang had asked Liu to look after his son. Zhou Bin sold a tourism company to Liu for 12 million yuan in 2004 although it was said to be worth less than half that.
Zhou Bin's wife, Huang Wan also played an important role in his business empire.
For instance, after Huang expressed interest in film and television production, a production company was founded in 2009 with 50 million yuan under the name of her mother, Zhan Minli, according to a corporate document filed to the government. The company produced several TV dramas and films, including one that listed Huang as "chief planner", reported the Post.
By 2011, the company had changed its name to Zhongxu Shengshi Fenghua Investment, and had assets of 128 million yuan.
On top of these, with help from his classmates and business partners, Zhou Bin also moved into property, consulting, equipment trading, natural gas, and many more. But the oil business always remained the main one.
Zhou Bin is not the only family member who used Zhou Yongkang's power to enrich himself. Zhou Yongkang's two brothers Zhou Yuanxing and Zhou Yuanqing also gathered great fortunes.
Fellow villagers say that Zhou Yuanxing, a graduate of junior high school, and his son acted as business agents for China's prestigious liquor company Wu Liangye. They were responsible for distribution to local companies. As Zhou Yongkang rose further in government, Zhou Yuanxing also started to use his brother's fame to help lobby government officials, Caixin reported.
The youngest brother, Zhou Yuanqing - also a junior high school graduate, worked as the deputy chief of a district's land and resources bureau. Zhou Yuanqing started to become the bridge to connect many lower-level officials to Zhou Yongkang, reported Caixin.
But it was Zhou Yuanqing's wife, Zhou Lingying, and son, Zhou Feng, who made a greater fortune.
In 2007, Zhou Lingying and her son invested 50 million yuan to establish a company called Beijing Honghan Investment. The company operates in the areas of energy investment, investment management and energy technology development, among others. As it expanded, the wife and son stepped into businesses in Sichuan Province, Chongqing city and Xinjiang , including energy, mining, property and city renovation projects.
The Honghan group invested in or controlled stakes in 20 companies. Total investments reached about 400 million yuan, reported Caixin.
Zhou Lingying also invested 19 million yuan of her money to build the only Audi dealership in Jiangyin, Jiangsu province. According to corporate documents, the revenue of this dealership was 659 million in 2012.
Zhou's influence in his family's business dealings reminds many of Bo Xilai, the former party chief of Chongqing. Bo is serving life imprisonment for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.
Although Bo didn't have that many family associates involved in business dealing on such a big scale, many argued it was farfetched to directly connect Bo to the money of his wife and friends.
"If there isn't any solid evidence to link Zhou's power to the money, the wealth probably will be described as a 'huge amount of wealth with unidentified sources', but that will be difficult to convince senior government officials," said Hu Xingdou, the political commentator. "No matter what, the public will support the decision (to investigate Zhou)."