As the world watches with interest the public arrest of Jang Song-thaek, the No. 2 political figure in North Korea, a more dramatic purge is unfolding in its neighboring China, North Korea’s big Communist brother.
A source in Beijing disclosed in details this week that Zhou Yongkang, who was China’s third most powerful politician, has been officially placed under criminal investigation on charges that could include murder, corruption, and plotting to overthrow the government. Zhou served on China’s Politburo Standing Committee – the highest decision-making body until his retirement in November 2012.
Contrary to previous reports that Zhou might face a mere internal rebuke or possible expulsion from the Communist Party, the source confirms that Zhou will be prosecuted and face trial, like Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member and a close ally. If all the accusations proved to be true, prosecution could seek the death penalty. This information has been confirmed with different inside sources in Beijing and Shanghai.
When he was party secretary of China’s southwestern province of Sichuan between 1999 and 2002, the source says Zhou, a married man, allegedly had affairs with multiple women, including Jia Xiaohua, a TV journalist who was twenty-eight-years his junior. When Jia claimed to be pregnant and demanded a marital commitment, Zhou promised to file for divorce in 2008. Soon after, Zhou’s first wife mysteriously died in a car crash. Two drivers who had been held responsible for her death were sentenced to more than ten years in jail but gained release after only three years. Zhou later married Jia. His former secretary and deputy governor of Sichuan is now suspected of orchestrating the car accident. With Zhou as the country’s powerful “security tsar,” the matter was never pursued. Zhou’s younger son was said to be disgusted with his father “beastly act,” and cut off his ties with Zhou.
“This is the first time in the past twenty years that a politburo standing committee member has been subject to a criminal investigation,” said the source.
In addition, recent overseas reports claim that Zhou had been accused of playing a key role in mafia-style killings of several political opponents, including three businessmen and a prominent military figure, and plotting to seize power from President Xi Jinping to protect the economic interest of his family and friends. There has also been an unconfirmed report by Boxun, an overseas Chinese news site that Zhou had planned to assassinate President Xi.
Based on overseas reports, Zhou’s family profited billions of dollars by investing in the oil business, where Zhou for years headed China National Petroleum Corp, the country’s largest oil and gas producer. According to the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, Zhou’s eldest son allegedly pocketed more than 10 billion yuan (US1.6 billion) from public projects in the city of Chongqing alone. He also used his father’s influence in the legal arena to extort millions of dollars in protection fees. In one case, the source said Zhou helped his son bail out a mafia leader who killed a local property owner who refused to relocate to make way for a development project by tying him to a tree and pouring buckets of hot oil over his head.
As former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the 70-year-old Zhou controlled the country’s legislative, law enforcement and judicial functions and reportedly supervised a staff of 10 million – China has a standing army of 2.5 million troops with a budget of $128 billion dollars. Zhou’s expanding empire, known as China’s fourth power, besides the Party, the government and the military, encompassed the nation’s police, the state agency for prosecution and criminal investigation, the courts, justice departments, and national intelligence departments. Besides, he had at his disposal the country’s large contingent of armed police, a paramilitary of former soldiers, specifically charged with handling social unrest.
Speculations about a possible investigation into Zhou and his family began circulating on the internet immediately after the downfall of Bo Xilai, who was sentenced to life-long imprisonment for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power in September 2013. Zhou, a staunch supporter of Bo, was rumored to have designated Bo as his successor inside the Politburo Standing Committee.
“Zhou’s trial is necessary for Xi Jinping to consolidate power and more importantly build his credibility as a tough fighter against corruption,” said Chen Xiaoping, a New York-based legal scholar. “Therefore, the court will most likely focus on Zhou’s corruption and murder charges to hide the political nature of Zhou’s crimes.”
Pulling the Tiger’s Teeth
According to the source, President Xi prolonged taking any action against Zhou due to a consensual rule made in the 1980s by Party veterans to exempt members of the Politburo Standing Committee from criminal investigations and prosecution with the intention of maintain stability of the party.
However, with evidence mounting against Zhou and his allies, President Xi was under tremendous pressure to break the unwritten rule relating to senior members of his cabinet.
“President Xi understands very well that without snatching a big tiger, the impact of his anti-corruption campaign would be diluted,” continued Chen.
Over the past year, in an attempt to what the Chinese media call “pulling the tiger’s teeth before stabbing its heart,” investigators have arrested a dozen of Zhou’s protégés who held senior positions within the party and the government, including his successor at China National Petroleum Corp and the deputy Party chief of Sichuan, who facilitated Zhou’s family investments in the oil and construction businesses in the province.
Moreover, the party’s anti-corruption body targeted Zhou’s eldest son, who had escaped to Singapore following his father’s retirement. He was captured and secretly brought back in September 2013. The eldest son reportedly agreed to cooperate with his father’s investigation in exchange for leniency. Meanwhile, police also raided the companies and homes of Zhou other relatives including his siblings, who have profited from his political influence and acted on Zhou’s behalf to accept bribes.
Armed with solid evidence, the source in Beijing says President Xi presented Zhou’s case to the other six members of the Standing Committee on the afternoon of December 1 and gained unanimous approval to hand Zhou over to prosecutors for investigation.
After the conclusion of the meeting, members of the special investigative unit were sent to Zhou’s residence and notified him of the Party’s decision to put him and his wife under house arrest. Zhou’s wife was said to have passed out. Zhou’s secretary, driver, and household staff were taken away for interrogation.
“This is the first time in the past twenty years that a politburo standing committee member has been subject to a criminal investigation,” said the source. “This is also the first time in the history of Communist China that a Politburo Standing Committee member faces trial on murder and corruption charges.”
If the political shake-up in North Korea could lead to political uncertainties in the world’s most isolated country, an analyst with Deutsche Welle’s Chinese language service expresses similar concerns for China. “The prosecution of Zhou could cause fears among retired senior officials and aggravate factional fights within the party.”
The source in Beijing sees it differently in China. He says the arrest of Zhou will further strengthen President Xi’s leadership position within the party. With President Xi now presiding over the party, the military, the government, the newly formed National Security Council and the Deepening Reform Leading Group, he has emerged as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
At present, the Chinese media remains mum over Zhou’s detention. Unlike the arrest of Bo Xilai, who gained significant sympathy from party insiders and the public alike, Zhou arrest seems to have universal approval. Four Chinese journalists and scholars who have learned about the news via overseas media tell The Daily Beast that they have expected it to happen and are pleased with President Xi’s “decisive action.”
Under Zhou, China’s security apparatus used extreme measures, such as kidnapping, torture, and illegal confiscation of personal property to suppress pro-independence protests in Tibet and persecute Falun Gong practitioners, Christian underground church members, political dissidents, and arbitrarily arrest and torture petitioners and human rights lawyers. Human rights activists accused Zhou of turning the country into a de facto police state.