China announced Tuesday that the former security czar Zhou Yongkang is under investigation, confirming the hushed whispers circulating over the past year.
Zhou is the most powerful Chinese figure to be swept into the net of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Until 2012, when Xi took power, Zhou was on the Politburo Standing Committee, the most elite ruling body in China.
What makes the case so dramatic is that, since the late 1970s, standing committee members have enjoyed an unwritten immunity, adopted at the end of the Cultural Revolution to prevent the Communist Party elite from cannibalizing each other in power struggles.
Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, did not describe the charges, but merely announced in a terse statement that Zhou was under investigation for a suspected "serious disciplinary violation" — generally code for corruption.
At this stage, the investigation remains with the Central Commission for Disciple Inspection, an internal party organ.
With his mottled complexion and square jaw, the 71-year-old Zhou was until recently one of the most feared men in China, the personification of the national security apparatus. Under his leadership, domestic security commanded a larger budget than the Peoples’ Liberation Army.
He previously had been an official in the state energy sector and had planted many of his proteges in key positions.
Zhou’s downfall is a hotly debated topic among China watchers. Many believe Zhou needed to be removed so that Xi can enact sweeping reforms in state-owned enterprises, while cynics say that Xi is merely carrying out a vendetta against political enemies.
A protege of former leader Jiang Zemin, Zhou was thought to have supported Xi’s rival, Bo Xilai, who was convicted last year in a salacious corruption trial.
Within an hour of the announcement of the investigation of Zhou, the party’s Peoples’ Daily weighed in with an apparently prewritten, congratulatory editorial. "No matter how powerful you are or how high of a position you held, as long as you broke the regulations of the party and the law of the nation, you'll be dealt with in accordance with law," the Communist Party mouthpiece opined.
Wu Si, a prominent editor at the liberal magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, wrote that it brought China "a step closer to modern civilization." Xi has made an anti-corruption campaign the theme of his administration, promising to bring down “tigers” as well as “flies” — big fish and the small.
Last year, 182,000 Communist Party officials were punished, according to a report to state media by the Commission for Discipline Inspection.