He was the square-jawed face of China’s fearsome domestic spying apparatus, a man at the pinnacle of Chinese power who presided over networks of influence that made him and those around him exceedingly wealthy and seemingly impervious to legal consequences.
The one-time Chinese security czar had the powerful economic connections of Dick Cheney and the fear-inducing presence of J. Edgar Hoover. But for more than half a year, a net of investigations, detentions and arrests slowly closed in on Zhou Yongkang, snaring friends, aides, protégés and close family members.
On Tuesday, Mr. Zhou himself was formally placed under investigation, in a brief but high-profile state media update that said he is being placed “under investigation for suspected ‘serious disciplinary violation,’” a routinely used term of art for corruption.
Until 2012, the 71-year-old was a member of the nine-person Politburo Standing Committee that wields immense power over the Chinese state and had, for years, occupied a unique spot atop the state-owned energy sector and its fearsome security apparatus, giving him immense economic and political influence.
It was a position he allegedly used to divert vast funds to his supporters and protégés, handing out lucrative rights to luxury auto dealerships, housing companies, mines and pipelines, while using oil and gas transactions to line his own pockets. In recent months, hundreds of those people have been investigated and detained.
The case against Mr. Zhou, who if found guilty would be the highest-ranking official sentenced on such grounds in modern China, has exposed the breadth and audacity of graft in the Communist Party, whose control over powerful state industries has offered opportunity for breathtaking personal enrichment.
Documents circulating inside the party and reported by Reuters described asset seizures from Mr. Zhou and his network worth the equivalent of $15.75-billion. The haul included antiques, paintings and stashes of liquor, gold, silver and cash.
The alleged flow of ill-gotten gains stretched around the world, touching Canada, too, after Li Zhiming, once the chief executive of Alberta-based Brion Energy, was detained by Chinese authorities earlier this year. Brion is a Chinese joint venture company active in the oil sands; at least one other person involved with Chinese oil investments in Canada has also been detained, according to a report by the Beijing-based Caixin news service. Mr. Zhou is believed to have ties to some of the executives who operated in Canada.
Mr. Zhou built a career in China’s energy industry, rising to the top of China National Petroleum Corp. in the mid-1990s, before taking the reins of the country’s security apparatus. During his tenure, the domestic spying budget exceeded that of China’s military.
He has not been seen in public since October, 2013, when he was placed under house arrest – but discussion of his case has been tightly proscribed by Chinese authorities in an active Internet censorship campaign. Confirmation of the investigation against him allowed talk to burst into the open and unleashed a deluge of posts and discussions on the Chinese Internet, where social-media sites have in recent years played a key role in ferreting out official corruption and bemoaning its corrosive effects.
The case against him is notable for the number of people it has ensnared, most prominently Mr. Zhou himself, since service in the Politburo Standing Committee has historically carried a kind of immunity to prosecution.
But since taking office last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping has waged a high-profile war on corruption, which he likened to “worms breeding in decaying matter” in describing the threat it posed to the legitimacy of China’s one-party rule. In his first speech as Communist Party Secretary-General, Mr. Xi specifically pointed out “corruption and bribe-taking” as pressing problems “that need to be resolved.”
But Mr. Zhou is widely believed to have mounted a threat to Mr. Xi’s ascension to top office, adding a political dimension to the investigation.
And anti-corruption campaigns have occurred with some regularity in Communist China, with Mao Zedong himself executing corrupt officials just three years after taking power. In the mid-1980s, then-premier Zhu Rongji created an amnesty program for those guilty of small-time corruption if they agreed to turn in those guilty of larger sins. It was called “grab the big and release the small.”
Mr. Xi’s efforts are notable for their breadth and depth, with some 25,000 officials – from news anchors to oil executives – caught up in the first six months of 2014 alone. The Chinese President has spoken about taking down “tigers and flies,” both big-name and small-name targets.
“It has been a massive anti-graft campaign. There’s no question about it,” said Howard Balloch, a former Canadian ambassador to China who remains active in the country. Still, he said, Mr. Xi like his predecessors has yet to make the country’s political structures less prone to future graft – and it’s an open question whether he will now be able to do so, given the political capital he has spent to dethrone people like Mr. Zhou and those around him.
“This is a massive swipe at unacceptable, illegitimate and and system-destroying practices,” Mr. Balloch said. But a purge of the body is only truly effective if steps are taken to make it healthy again, he added.
“And in order to be made healthy, it needs ongoing resistance to disease, the disease of corruption.”
That could mean creating a more independent judiciary or allowing a more independent press to flourish. But in some areas, like press freedom, Mr. Xi has actually been more restrictive than his predecessors, leaving lingering doubts about whether a new generation of tigers and flies is just waiting to dip in to the often-heady spoils of corruption in China.
Still, the purge itself may function as reform. China’s state-owned companies, where corruption is often most prevalent, are also often the least efficient. Weeding out graft, then, could pay dividends beyond politics.
“The question is, will this end up actually cleaning out a lot of the inefficient corruption in the state sector?” says Jonathan Fenby, an author and analyst who is managing director of China research at Trusted Sources, a London-based consultancy.
He believes that is at least one of the aims.
“The anti-graft is being used as a weapon in the economic reform program, as well as obviously to go bring down political enemies.”