BEIJING - A 1.7 million yuan (S$351,000) Audi Q7 parked at a swanky apartment building in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi used to turn heads with its auspicious number plate "B99999" until Dec 1, when it reportedly disappeared along with its ill-fated owner - a brother of China's former internal security chief Zhou Yongkang.
Mr Zhou Yuanqing and his wife Zhou Lingying have been taken from their home in Wuxi, eastern Jiangsu province, and detained by "discipline investigators from Beijing", state-run media reported on Monday.
On the same day, China's top advisory body - the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) - opened its key annual meeting at the Great Hall of the People.
Its convention and that of China's Parliament, the National People's Congress, comprise the "two sessions" or lianghui, where delegates discuss issues from social equity to clean government.
Speculation that the Communist Party leadership is tightening the noose around 71-year-old Zhou Yongkang - who retired as a member of China's apex ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), in late 2012 - has intensified, amid a build-up of media exposes on people close to him who are being investigated for corruption.
Besides the couple, Mr Zhou's son Zhou Bin as well as dozens of his former subordinates have been investigated for their dealings.
Top-ranking officials who have fallen this year include Mr Li Dongsheng, a former public security vice-minister who served under Mr Zhou.
President Xi Jinping has vowed to clamp down on corruption, targeting powerful "tigers" such as the highest-ranking officials as well as small "flies".
The most stunning scandal to date involves once high-flying Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai. He had reportedly counted Mr Zhou Yongkang, who built up a power base in southwest Sichuan province, as a patron.
Bo's stellar political career ended when he was replaced on March 15, 2012 - at the close of the lianghui. He was jailed for life last September for abuse of power and corruption.
Now, the authorities appear to be systematically allowing the release of evidence via state media that could nail Mr Zhou Yongkang.
On Monday, the Beijing News reported that Mrs Zhou Lingying was involved in a liquefied gas station partnership with a firm linked to stateowned oil giant China National Petroleum Corporation, which was once helmed by Mr Zhou Yongkang.
She also owed her success as a key investor in a multimillion-dollar Audi dealership to Mr Zhou Bin.
The success of Mr Zhou Bin, who ran a business empire which included energy interests and entertainment, was obviously "based on corruption as he amassed huge wealth through his 'powerful government connections'", claimed the official Beijing Youth Daily.
The release of such information in Chinese media - with what the state-linked Global Times described as "unusual depth and boldness" - could be calculated to build an iron-clad case against Mr Zhou Yongkang, who could be the first official of such high rank to be brought down in a formal inquiry.
Analysts say there had earlier been rumours of strong resistance among certain political elite to Mr Xi's decision to target Mr Zhou Yongkang, as PSC members are generally seen as having immunity even after retirement. Mr Xi's government is treading carefully.
"So there is a need for an encirclement strategy - moving from the periphery to the centre; from relatives, associates and businessmen involved in corruption (in towards implicating Mr Zhou Yongkang himself)," said Sun Yat-sen University professor Xiao Bin.
On Sunday, CPPCC spokesman Lu Xinhua avoided denying that Mr Zhou Yongkang was under investigation after being asked about it at a press conference.
"We mean it when we say that anyone who violates the law and party discipline will be investigated and punished severely, no matter who he is or what position he holds," Mr Lu said. "This is all I can say. You know what I mean."
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