Tackling the 'big tiger' in the anti-graft net

Tackling the 'big tiger' in the anti-graft net
China's former Public Security Minister Zhou reacting as he attends the Hebei delegation discussion sessions at the 17th National Congress of the CPC in Beijing.

The revelation in the Hong Kong media earlier this month that Zhou Yongkang, 72, a former member of China's political elite now facing trial on corruption charges, has allegedly withdrawn his confession throws up questions regarding the formalities of his trial.

China's former security chief is charged with taking bribes, abuse of power and intentionally leaking state secrets, amid President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption crackdown, which has caught high-ranking "tigers" in its net.

There is speculation that Zhou withdrew his confession made to investigators amid the possibility that he could be sentenced to death at his trial, which was to have been held in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing.

Sources had told one Hong Kong media outlet that his trial had been scheduled for late last month, but was then pushed back.

Indeed, it would not have been implausible that Zhou's hearing had been scheduled for then, given that a number of his key associates from China's oil sector and the Sichuan provincial government have been tried in the past month. Zhou is a former minister of land and natural resources, and former party secretary of Sichuan.

However, it is not unlikely that his impending court session would take place only after his followers from another of his former power bases - the country's internal security apparatus - have also had their day in court.

Regardless, the period Zhou has been held under custody - since December 2013 - would suggest that the evidence required to indict him has all but been established. Standing trial before a judiciary appointed by China's authoritarian regime would also make passing judgment on him seem a straightforward affair.

Still, the convoluted details that have emerged regarding a trial that remains in the works reveal the complexities in sifting out fact from fiction in the still- unravelling developments.

Weighing pros and cons

Zhou is the highest-ranking member of China's government to face corruption charges since the Cultural Revolution. While he can be certain of receiving a guilty verdict for his role in accepting bribes, abuse of power, and intentionally disclosing state secrets, the kind of punishment he would receive for his indiscretions remains an open question.

He is considered a former mentor of jailed Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai - now serving a life sentence for bribery and abuse of power. So one would expect his sentence to be heavier than life imprisonment. That leaves the option of a suspended death sentence, or the death penalty itself.

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