Hard landing for ex-security chief?

CHINA'S retired security czar Zhou Yongkang made history in 2002 when he became the first Politburo member since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 to hold a ministerial portfolio.

Now, he could also go down in China's annals as the first Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member - retired or serving - to face a corruption probe since the 10-year revolution. A report last Friday by Hong Kong's South China Morning Post (SCMP) claimed Communist Party leaders have backed President Xi Jinping's decision to investigate Mr Zhou for graft, though many believe the real reason for the probe to be the latter's close ties with ousted Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai.

Investigating Mr Zhou is also seen as a move by Mr Xi to make an example out of the retired ninth-ranked PSC leader amid the Communist Party's flagging anti- corruption campaign.

If talk of the probe proves true, it would mean that Mr Zhou's well-oiled connections with top leaders, such as former vice-president Zeng Qinghong, might have hit the skids at long last.

Such powerful contacts helped Mr Zhou emerge as China's top law enforcer over the past decade, though he had neither a police career or law degree. He effectively ran China's vast security system and the oil industry, where he worked for more than 30 years and got to know Mr Zeng, 72, who is also his brother-in-law, and in turn a close ally of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

Born in December 1942 in Wuxi, coastal Jiangsu province, close to Mr Jiang's hometown, Yangzhou, Mr Zhou graduated from the Beijing Petroleum Institute in 1966 and joined the Liaohe Oil Exploration Bureau, where he rose steadily through the ranks.

There, he got to know Mr Zeng, who was secretary to then petroleum industry minister Yu Qiuli, and both accompanied Mr Yu on his trips to the oil fields.

Their friendship turned into kinship when Mr Zhou married Mr Zeng's younger sister.

Mr Zhou received help time and again from his brother-in-law in his career. In 1997, after being stuck for 12 years as deputy party boss of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), he got promoted to general manager of the state oil and gas producer with Mr Zeng's help.

In 2002, when Mr Zeng entered the PSC as its fifth-ranked leader, he orchestrated moves to install Mr Zhou in the Politburo and as the new public security minister.

Given their close ties, Mr Zhou's appointments were seen as effectively handing over control of China's 1.6 million-strong police force to Mr Zeng.

But Mr Zhou also knew early how to appear as his own man or to win approval from top leaders by such moves as sacking hundreds of police officers in a bid to weed out its culture of heavy drinking. According to an SCMP report in 2007, Mr Zhou was credited within the public security world with "making the force more professional and powerful".

In 2007, his political career peaked when he entered the PSC and headed the party's politics and law commission that oversees the courts, police and other legal enforcement bodies.

Though he ranked last in the nine-man PSC, Mr Zhou wielded significant power through his control over the domestic security forces that enjoy an annual budget even bigger than that for the People's Liberation Army.

Said Hong Kong-based analyst Joseph Cheng: "Zhou rose in power certainly because he performed but also because he caught the eye of Jiang Zemin through Zeng."

But expansion of the security forces reportedly unnerved many top leaders.

Word started spreading in April last year that Mr Zhou had been sidelined - having to relinquish control of the commission and being barred from making public appearances - over his objections to the party's sacking of Bo from his Chongqing post and suspension from the Politburo.

Damning reports also surfaced that Mr Zhou and Bo had tried to thwart then Vice-President Xi Jinping's rise in succeeding Mr Hu Jintao as Communist Party chief, and even bugged the phones of top leaders like Mr Hu.

Mr Zhou had reportedly tried to install Bo, whose trial for corruption and abuse of power lasted five days last month, as his successor as security czar.

In late April, an SCMP report said the Chinese government had sent a team to Hong Kong to investigate the business interests of Bo and his family, and also into their relations with Mr Zhou.

A day later, Mr Zhou called for party unity in a paper published in the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, in a move seen to appease the top leaders."Let us unify even more closely around the party centre with comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary," he wrote.

Such efforts - and backing from Mr Zeng and Mr Jiang - apparently paid off. Mr Zhou was allowed to retire smoothly with only a stain on his legacy: He was reportedly denied a say in picking the next PSC line-up and his successor as security chief.

But word started swirling early this year that Mr Zhou had come under scrutiny again when the Communist Party investigated and detained his former subordinates, such as former Sichuan vice-governor Guo Yongxiang, his long-time secretary.

The latest Zhou ally to fall is state asset regulatory chief Jiang Jiemin, once CNPC general manager. The central committee member is detained for "serious disciplinary violations" according to state news reports yesterday.

Now all eyes are on whether Mr Zhou will prove lucky by escaping investigations - or whether he will make history a second time.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

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