CHINA'S retired security czar Zhou Yongkang, reportedly the target of an unprecedented graft probe, has made his first appearance in China's state media.
Observers said the latest development is a sign that Mr Zhou, 70, may not have been investigated or that the Communist Party could be letting him off lightly.
A member of the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) till his retirement last November, he was named along with current and retired top leaders in a state news report on Thursday.
They were offering condolences over the death of Guangdong province's former adviser Wang Ning, 91, who died last Monday and was cremated on Wednesday.
The front-page report by the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily - a paper run by the southern city's Communist Party committee - carried the names of some 80 leaders and officials.
President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang led the list that included former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and former premier Wen Jiabao.
The Shenzhen report, carried on major Chinese news websites such as the People's Daily's, said the leaders had "either visited Mr Wang in hospital, expressed their grief over his death or conveyed their condolences to his family".
Observers said the media mention about Mr Zhou shows that his fate is not as dire as reported.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported last Friday that Mr Zhou was being investigated for graft, which would make him the first former PSC member to face a corruption probe.
Said Hong Kong- based analyst Willy Lam: "In a non-transparent society like China's, being mentioned in the media could reflect a leader's circumstances.
"The report is released deliberately, amid the heavy reportage on Zhou Yongkang, to show that things are not as serious."
Renmin University political analyst Zhang Ming also said the report on Thursday shows that Mr Zhou appears to be safe, for now.
The Shenzhen article appears to confirm a report by Reuters on Wednesday that Mr Zhou is "assisting" in the probe, and is not its target.
But Professor Lam believes that Mr Zhou has indeed been investigated, given recent developments.
Several of Mr Zhou's former subordinates, in the China National Petroleum Corporation and south-western Sichuan province, have been detained for disciplinary violations since late last year.
In China, the arrests of one's proteges are seen as an ominous sign of trouble for a leader.
But Prof Lam believes the party may let Mr Zhou off with disciplinary actions, such as putting him under house arrest. Breaking the tacit rule of exempting PSC members from criminal conviction, aimed at mutual protection, could trigger massive repercussions.
"Taking action against Zhou would make other retired leaders very nervous," said Prof Lam.
"It is not impossible, but it would be hard to imagine Xi getting support from other leaders like Jiang Zemin."
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