Tackling the 'big tiger' in the anti-graft net

China's former Public Security Minister Zhou reacting as he attends the Hebei delegation discussion sessions at the 17th National Congress of the CPC in Beijing.

The revelation in the Hong Kong media earlier this month that Zhou Yongkang, 72, a former member of China's political elite now facing trial on corruption charges, has allegedly withdrawn his confession throws up questions regarding the formalities of his trial.

China's former security chief is charged with taking bribes, abuse of power and intentionally leaking state secrets, amid President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption crackdown, which has caught high-ranking "tigers" in its net.

There is speculation that Zhou withdrew his confession made to investigators amid the possibility that he could be sentenced to death at his trial, which was to have been held in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing.

Sources had told one Hong Kong media outlet that his trial had been scheduled for late last month, but was then pushed back.

Indeed, it would not have been implausible that Zhou's hearing had been scheduled for then, given that a number of his key associates from China's oil sector and the Sichuan provincial government have been tried in the past month. Zhou is a former minister of land and natural resources, and former party secretary of Sichuan.

However, it is not unlikely that his impending court session would take place only after his followers from another of his former power bases - the country's internal security apparatus - have also had their day in court.

Regardless, the period Zhou has been held under custody - since December 2013 - would suggest that the evidence required to indict him has all but been established. Standing trial before a judiciary appointed by China's authoritarian regime would also make passing judgment on him seem a straightforward affair.

Still, the convoluted details that have emerged regarding a trial that remains in the works reveal the complexities in sifting out fact from fiction in the still- unravelling developments.

Weighing pros and cons

Zhou is the highest-ranking member of China's government to face corruption charges since the Cultural Revolution. While he can be certain of receiving a guilty verdict for his role in accepting bribes, abuse of power, and intentionally disclosing state secrets, the kind of punishment he would receive for his indiscretions remains an open question.

He is considered a former mentor of jailed Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai - now serving a life sentence for bribery and abuse of power. So one would expect his sentence to be heavier than life imprisonment. That leaves the option of a suspended death sentence, or the death penalty itself.

Indeed, the decision to try Zhou in Tianjin has been cited to raise the possibility that he would be sentenced to death, with the Higher People's Court in the municipality having jurisdiction over imposing capital punishment.

If the authorities have indeed decided on executing him, however, his former patrons and allies then get a reprieve. This may also be good news for his other associates yet to be hauled up by the Central Discipline Commission. Putting Zhou to death might also be seen as a way for the Chinese Communist Party to "bury" incriminating evidence on its other elite members.

On the other hand, discrepancies between Zhou's latest charges and earlier allegations from the end of last year suggest that he would instead receive a suspended death sentence. While this may allow President Xi to make use of his former Politburo Standing Committee colleague to bring down other political rivals, letting the "tiger" off the hook would not burnish the standing of the anti-graft movement as potently.

Will Xi continue to push ahead?

It has been well-documented that the impact of the ongoing anti-corruption drive has been felt throughout the Chinese Communist Party machinery, with some officials having been criticised by the party centre for their administrative inaction.

Bureaucrats in the post-reform era are no strangers to the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's political maxim "taoguang yanghui", for China to keep a low profile on the international stage. In China's current political climate, they can be expected to apply the same concept in the domestic context - to "lie low and bide their time" amid the anti-graft campaign.

One particular school of thought contends that the distribution and acceptance of bribes have helped to grease the wheels of China's economic growth. While the party's official mouthpieces have on numerous occasions proclaimed a "zero- tolerance" approach in the anti-corruption campaign - with Mr Xi himself recently calling for the strict governance of the Communist Party - China's political elites are also aware that a country run by frightened officials can further set back an already-slackening economy.

This article was first published on May 29, 2015.
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