BEIJING - A senior Chinese government spokesman sidestepped a question about the fate of the country's powerful former domestic security chief on Sunday, the first time a top official has been asked about a corruption case that has been shrouded in secrecy.
Zhou Yongkang was a member of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee - the apex of power in the country - and held the immensely powerful post of security overlord until he retired in 2012.
Zhou has been put under virtual house arrest while the party investigates accusations of corruption against him, sources have told Reuters.
He was last seen at an alumni celebration at the China University of Petroleum on Oct. 1. The party has yet to make a formal announcement on his fate, and speculation has swirled about him, especially in Hong Kong's freewheeling press.
Asked about Zhou, the spokesman for the largely ceremonial advisory body to parliament, whose annual session opens on Monday, said he had also seen media reports about Zhou. "As a matter of fact my source of information about this is also the handful of media organisations as you mentioned, so I will try to answer your question in this way," Lu Xinhua told a news conference, carried live on state television.
There was an awkward laugh in the room after the question was asked. The official online transcript of the event carried no reference to the question or the answer.
Lu said that the government was committed to fighting corruption, no matter where it occurred.
"We have investigated corruption cases involving Chinese Communist Party leading officials including high ranking officials," he added.
"We are doing this to demonstrate to the whole party and the whole society that when we see that anyone violates law and party discipline they will be investigated and dealt with severely, and no matter whom they are or what their position is, we mean it. This is all I can say. That's the way it is."
It is unclear if the government would actually put Zhou on trial. An open trial could risk the chance of possibly embarrassing revelations about China's elite, which could potentially further affect public faith in the party.
During his five-year watch as security chief, Zhou oversaw the police force, civilian intelligence apparatus, paramilitary police, judges and prosecutors. Government spending on domestic security exceeded the defence budget.
But Zhou became too powerful and that position was downgraded during a sweeping leadership reshuffle in 2012.