BEIJING - The arrest of former public security czar Zhou Yongkang and his expulsion from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) underscore President Xi Jinping's tightening grip on power. It is also the Chinese leader's biggest and boldest move yet in his two-year campaign to root out corruption across all ranks, experts said.
"Previously, there was some uncertainty as to the type of punishment Mr Zhou might face and if he might be able to escape criminal trial. But yesterday's announcement that he would face legal action puts an end to speculation," said analyst Chen Gang of the East Asian Institute in Singapore.
"The biggest message from this is Mr Xi's firm control of power as he is able to overcome political resistance from other factions," he told The Sunday Times.
Mr Zhou, 71, has been placed under a judicial probe for a barrage of charges including taking bribes, helping family members and cronies plunder government assets and leaking official secrets, the official Xinhua news agency reported early yesterday.
It added that the decision to expel him was made at a Politburo meeting on Friday, suggesting that the move was given the green light by the party's core circle of leaders, including Mr Xi.
This latest development follows a probe launched against Mr Zhou - a retired member of the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) - by the CCP in July. The probe was an unprecedented move that showed Mr Xi's anti-graft drive had reached levels of the nation's leadership previously thought untouchable.
Already, the dragnet around Mr Zhou has led to more than 300 of his relatives and former subordinates in Sichuan province and the energy and security sectors being investigated. At least 90 billion yuan (S$19.3 billion) in assets have been seized from his family members and associates, media reports said.
The probe on Mr Zhou came after the fall of an ally, former Chongqing leader Bo Xilai, who was sentenced to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power in September last year.
Mr Zhou and Bo were alleged to have plotted a coup against Mr Xi, leading to their being targeted politically, some experts said. Bo's career fell apart after the death of a British businessman, for which his wife was convicted of murder.
Chinese state media yesterday applauded the arrest of Mr Zhou as a sign that even high-ranking officials were not immune to punishment in the ferocious antigraft campaign Mr Xi has waged since coming to power in November 2012.
"Corruption is a cancer that has invaded the party's healthy tissue," an editorial in People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, said. "We must use investigating and dealing with Zhou Yongkang's grave violations to thoroughly advance the struggle against corruption."
But while the arrest has set the stage for a trial - and likely a conviction and heavy sentence - the timing of the late-night notice indicates that Beijing remains mindful of the sensitivity of the country's biggest corruption probe in history, experts said.
China's recent pledge to promote "rule of law" will also be put to the test: how transparent the investigation and ensuing trial will be, for instance, is being closely watched. But a closed trial is likely as the party runs a risk of Mr Zhou threatening to reveal state secrets or embarrassing it in an open trial, they added.
Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam told The Sunday Times that the trial is likely to be similar to Bo's, whose trial proceedings were aired live on a microblog. "But the information will be very heavily censored as there is a lot of dirty linen. Everybody also wants to find out what the state secrets Mr Zhou leaked are, but these will not be publicised."
He added: "While the Chinese legal system is on trial here as well, this is a highly politicised case and we can be sure that despite the party's pledge not to interfere in the courts, the verdict will still be decided by the PSC. China's pledge to implement rule of law involves a protracted timeline and we're still only at the very beginning of that process."
This article was first published on December 7, 2014.
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