Zhou Yongkang: oil man whose well of power finally ran dry

Zhou Yongkang: oil man whose well of power finally ran dry
File photo of Zhou Yongkang, the former Chinese security chief who amassed huge power before his retirement from the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in 2012.

BEIJING - Embattled former top Communist Zhou Yongkang rose through China's state oil industry to become the country's internal security chief - and amassed so much power, according to analysts, that he brought about his own downfall.

The investigation into him announced Tuesday comes on the back of President Xi Jinping's much-publicised anti-corruption drive, but experts say it is driven more by internal politics within the factionalised ruling party.

Zhou, 71, was born in the eastern industrial city of Wuxi in 1942, reportedly the son of an eel farmer, although some sources have claimed his father was a senior Communist defence procurement bureaucrat.

He got his start in the 1970s as a technician for the Liaohe Oil Exploration Bureau in the northeastern province of Liaoning, home to China's third-largest oil field.

By 1996, he had worked his way up to head giant state-owned oil producer China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and went on to become the Communist Party chief in the southwestern province of Sichuan.

There he established a reputation as a hardliner, including against the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

He is a central figure in what some analysts have termed the "oil faction" within the Communist Party, a network of influential politicians who have ties with China's powerful and lucrative petroleum industry - and is sometimes described as "China's Dick Cheney".

Too powerful

In 2002 he ascended to the upper echelons of Chinese leadership, with a slot in the ruling party's 25-member Politburo and the role of minister of public security.

Five years later he stepped up to the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China's most powerful body, and head of the party's Central Politics and Law Commission (CPLC), responsible for all of China's internal security, including its police, courts, jails and domestic surveillance.

His tenure was marked by the brutal use of force in response to civic unrest, as he oversaw the quelling of riots in Tibet in 2008 and in the restive far-western region of Xinjiang - the homeland of China's mainly Muslim Uighur minority - in 2009.

According to a Chinese finance ministry report, in 2013 the official budget overseen by the CPLC exceeded the national defence budget for the fourth year in a row, with a staggering 769 billion yuan (now $124 billion) spent on domestic security compared with 760 billion yuan (now $123 billion) in military expenditure.

"Maintenance of stability is something very, very vague, and there's a lot of room for corruption," said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

"And since there's a lot of room for corruption - a lot of leeway for spending - you have a lot of resources to build up your network of ties. That is why he has become so powerful." That build-up of power and resources - and a network of proteges and allies eager to establish themselves at the top of the party - was part of what triggered Zhou's political demise, Cheng added.

"He's been in charge of a growing and expanding public security machinery, and he is seen to be too powerful to be comfortable to the leadership, especially Xi Jinping," he said.

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