The long undoing of one of China's once most powerful men moved another step forward Saturday, when the Communist Party booted Zhou Yongkang, arrested him and accused him of stealing vast amounts of money, leaking secrets and committing adultery.
Mr. Zhou's case will be sent to the courts, state media said in reports released a minute past midnight that offered the latest glimpse into a palace intrigue that has consumed China's political elite for more than a year.
Western and Chinese independent media have documented illicit gains of nearly $16-billion, and have reported the seizure of stashes of antiques, paintings, liquor, gold, silver and cash. But the reports Saturday offered the most official detail yet — while offering no specifics — as to what crimes Mr. Zhou is believed to have committed.
A former Politburo Standing Committee member, Mr. Zhou once sat atop China's all-encompassing state security apparatus while also wielding influence inside its state-owned oil and gas goliaths. His power has been compared to J. Edgar Hoover and Dick Cheney combined in one man.
He stands accused of using his authority to secure "huge bribes personally and through his family," state media said. He caused "serious losses" to state-owned entities, traded power for sex, committed affairs "with a number of women" and used his clout to deliver "huge profits" to relatives, mistresses and friends.
He also gave away party and national secrets, state media said, an accusation that raised the prospect the public will never gain further information about Mr. Zhou's case. When fallen star Bo Xilai was punished, his case was heard in a court that, through postings to social media, offered at least a partial glimpse into the extent of his wrongdoing — and the robust defence he offered of his own conduct.
It's unclear that will ever happen with Mr. Zhou, since China routinely uses charges of violating state secrets provisions to keep proceedings hidden from public view. The proceeds of Mr. Zhou's graft were so vast — enough to place him within the upper ranks of the world's richest — and his network of influence so pervasive, that President Xi Jinping may be loathe to release more detail out of fear it would undermine popular confidence in the entire Chinese system.
The secrets allegations make it likely Mr. Zhou will face "a closed-door trial. This might be the main reason," said Jean-Philippe Beja, a China specialist with the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
The adultery charges, he said, are intended to show a blackened morality. "If you are corrupt, you commit adultery — that means you don't have the moral standards to be a good party cadre," he said.
The investigation into Mr. Zhou nonetheless forms a central element of Mr. Xi's campaign against "tigers and flies," his bid to root out graft among both the most and the least powerful. Of tens of thousands of people who have publicly come under questioning in the past two years, Mr. Zhou is the biggest tiger of all. It is a rare spectacle to see one of China's most powerful men coming under investigation, being tossed from the Communist Party and then tried in court. Mr. Zhou has, as a consequence, served as a confidence-shattering example to China's sweeping, graft-infested bureaucracy.
"It's a signal that [Mr. Xi] doesn't hesitate. That's the signal he wants to send," Mr. Béja said. "It's very much in line with his campaign on work style, on restoring the old traditions of the party."
China has in recent years waged a high-profile crusade against corruption, which Mr. Xi has said poses a grave threat to the existence of the Communist Party. Investigators have taken down top figures in the military, state-owned corporations, news media and even liquor-makers.
The effects have rippled through the economy, with sales of luxury goods falling, restaurants striking expensive menu items and hotels knocking off star ratings to appeal to chastened mandarins.
China, however, fell 20 places in the latest Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, a global ranking of countries. That report, released this week, accused Mr. Xi of conducting an ineffective prosecutorial campaign against corruption while leaving root causes untouched. It prompted an angry response from state media, with the Communist mouthpiece Global Times saying Transparency International's "credibility has plunged in Chinese public opinion."