BEIJING/HONG KONG - Little is known about the exact circumstances in which Wang Shuhua was killed. What has been reported, in the Chinese media, is that she died in a road accident sometime in 2000, shortly after she was divorced from her husband. And that at least one vehicle with a military license plate may have been involved in the crash.
Fourteen years later, investigators are looking into her death. Their sudden interest has nothing to do with Wang herself. It has to do with the identity of her ex-husband - once one of China's most powerful men and now the prime target in President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign.
Investigators are probing the death of the first wife of Zhou Yongkang, China's retired security czar, a source with direct knowledge of the investigation told Reuters. They are looking for evidence of foul play by Zhou in the crash, the source said.
That investigators are going to such lengths to discredit Zhou is one sign of the power struggle that has raged at the very top of the Communist Party since the reins were handed to Xi almost two years ago. It isn't over. Another indication is that Xi is considering a proposal to let the 205-member Central Committee deliberate on whether to press criminal charges against Zhou, 71, rather than handle his case exclusively among top leaders, said one person with ties to the leadership. link.reuters.com/zyk82w
This would be an unprecedented departure from the party's usually more opaque decision making on internal discipline matters. It suggests that Xi believes he needs to ensure the backing of the wider leadership before moving to decisively neutralize Zhou.
Xi and his allies are still uncertain how far they can go in their bid to eliminate the threat from a rival who once controlled China's pervasive security apparatus and built a sprawling network of patronage with tentacles deep in politics and business, according to sources with ties to the leadership. More broadly, as his anti-corruption campaign begins to threaten powerful vested interests, Xi needs to weigh the danger of a backlash from some of China's most politically connected families, who want to protect the vast wealth their proximity to power has afforded them. link.reuters.com/xyk82w
EJECTED FROM PARTY?
On July 29, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party's internal watchdog, said in a terse statement that Zhou is under investigation "on suspicion of grave violations of discipline," usually a euphemism for graft. The watchdog's statement gave no details of the accusations against him but the 69-character announcement is being closely scrutinized for clues about the party's intentions.
"The statement did not say he violated the law," says Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow and expert on Chinese elite politics at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute. "If Zhou Yongkang is only found to be guilty of violating party discipline, the worst punishment would be to expel him from the party."
That move may not be far off, Reuters has learned. It is likely that Zhou will be ejected from the party, possibly as early as October when the Central Committee holds its fourth plenary session, according to sources with ties to the leadership.
But before it moves to actually prosecute Zhou, the party wants to be sure it has an iron-clad case. Investigators are anxious to avoid a repeat of the trial last year of Zhou's ally, the former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who recanted his earlier confessions and protested his innocence during a five-day trial, according to a person with leadership ties. Bo was jailed for life for corruption.
The party is also considering the potential damage to its reputation if the allegations against Zhou are aired in a public trial. It would be difficult for the leadership to explain how Zhou appeared to have enjoyed wide support within the party as he climbed through the ranks to eventually become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China, people familiar with the investigation told Reuters.
If a defiant Zhou chooses to speak out at a trial, it could also deeply embarrass the party. From his years running the security services, Zhou has intimate knowledge of the affairs of current and retired leaders and their families, according to two sources with leadership ties. "Zhou knows too much," one of the sources said. "It is a huge risk."
Zhou is believed to have been behind the bugging of senior Chinese leaders during the sensitive period in the run-up to the party's 18th Congress in 2012, which saw the once-in-a-decade transfer of power, Reuters reported in May. Premier Li Keqiang and his predecessor, Wen Jiabao, were the targets of the surveillance ordered by Zhou, who was searching for evidence of corruption, according to one person close to the leadership.
Officials at CCDI and the State Council Information Office, which doubles as the spokesman's office for the cabinet, didn't respond to questions sent by fax to their offices. The Beijing Bureau of Public Security did not reply to phone calls seeking details on the police report into the crash in which Zhou's first wife died. Relatives of Wang Shuhua could not be reached.