Former China security tsar faces graft probe

Zhou Yongkang, a recently retired member of the ruling Communist party's Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

BEIJING - China will launch a corruption investigation into former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, one of Beijing's most powerful politicians of the last decade, a Hong Kong newspaper reported on Friday citing unspecified sources.

The probe into Zhou, a recently retired member of the ruling Communist party's Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), its highest-ranking body, was reported by the South China Morning Post, which cited "sources familiar with the leadership's thinking".

Zhou would be the highest-ranking official to be investigated for decades - one level above fallen politician Bo Xilai, considered an ally of his in the factionalised party - and an investigation would send huge shockwaves through Beijing.

"Current and retired top leaders endorsed the decision earlier this month during the secretive annual party meeting" at the northeastern resort of Beidaihe, the SCMP said.

"Sources said top leaders made the decision in view of the rising anger inside the party at the scale of the corruption problem and the vast fortune that Zhou's family has amassed," it added.

Party chief and national president Xi Jinping ordered officials in charge of the case to "get to the bottom of it", it added.

The report did not specify when the inquiry would be launched but said that it "may not be publicised before the keynote meeting of the party elites in November".

It noted that senior Communist officials must first be investigated by the party's central commission for discipline inspection, which may or may not pass cases to the criminal justice system.

Zhou stepped down from the PSC, where he oversaw China's police, judiciary and internal security operations, as part of the handover of power to a new generation of leaders at last November's 18th party congress.

Speculation has swirled around him for months.

The SCMP report came after China announced this week that four top managers at state-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and its listed arm PetroChina were under investigation for "violation of discipline" - a euphemism often used for graft.

Zhou was the head of CNPC from 1996 to 1998 and the overseas Chinese-language news website Boxun -- which often reports unsourced rumours -- linked the four fallen officials to Zhou and his family.

One of them, Wang Yongchun, used to be Zhou's assistant when he worked in Daqing, the site of one of China's major oilfields.

Zhou was the party chief of the southwestern province of Sichuan from 1999 to 2002, and in June the official Xinhua news agency reported that its former vice governor Guo Yongxiang had been put under investigation.

Guo also worked in the oil industry for 26 years, according to Chinese media reports.

In December, Xinhua said that Li Chuncheng, who was promoted to mayor of the Sichuan capital Chengdu during Zhou's time in the province, had been removed from his post as the province's deputy party secretary for "serious violations of discipline".

Li was the first high-ranking official to be fired after the Communist power handover.

"It is understood the new probe will centre on Zhou's time in Sichuan and at CNPC," the SCMP said.

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