Chinese billionaire Liu Han once donated money for the construction of a primary school in his native Sichuan province. Because the building withstood the deadly 2008 earthquake — unlike the government’s shoddily constructed “tofu schools” that collapsed and claimed thousands of students’ lives — the mining and real estate executive was praised by local activists.
But Liu, who is in his late 40s, may also have death on his hands — that of nine people to be exact, according to Chinese prosecutors who have now charged the Sichuan businessman and his “alleged gang members” for murder, blackmail, gunrunning and a dozen other crimes.
State-run news agency Xinhua, published sensational details of Liu’s case on Feb. 21. Arrested last March, just as he was making forays into taking over an Australian mining firm, Liu is accused of having run a “mafia-style gang” that terrorized Sichuan since 1993 by stealing land from farmers and killing those who dared oppose him. Xinhua quoted one purported henchman’s confession: “Nothing happened to me after the killing, and that made me bolder and more unscrupulous.”
Beyond such lurid disclosures, the Chinese public is enthralled by Liu’s connection to Zhou Yongkang, the grim-faced former Chinese security czar who retired in 2012 after ascending to the Politburo Standing Committee, the top rank of the Chinese Communist Party.
Rumors about Zhou’s possible indiscretions have circulated for months, as more than a dozen of his underlings, aides and associates have been picked up by the government’s corruption hunters. The targeted officials and businessmen largely come from three of Zhou’s former power bases: Sichuan province, where Zhou was party boss from 1999 to 2002, the state-run oil industry, which Zhou helped helm before he took over at the Ministry of Land and Resources, and the nation’s public-security apparatus, which Zhou, now 71, ran until he retired because of his advanced age.
On Feb. 24, the net around Zhou appeared to tighten further as the vice minister of public security, Li Dongsheng, was formally dismissed from his position, according to a statement by China’s State Council. Li, who was placed under investigation in December for “serious disciplinary violations,” helped run China’s internal-security apparatus, which receives more public funding than the nation’s military. Li was considered a close ally of Zhou. Three days before that, Beijing municipality’s top security official Liang Ke was also officially relieved of his duties.
As for mining tycoon Liu, Chinese business magazine Caixin reported on Feb. 21 that the chairman of Sichuan Hanlong Group was a “close business partner” of Zhou Bin, an oil and gas bigwig who may now be under detention himself. The Caixin article detailed how Liu and Zhou apparently partnered on questionable tourism and power deals, among others. Zhou, according to Caixin, is the “son of a former top leader.” The Chinese magazine, which must endure a certain amount of government censorship, declined to name the former leader. He is, in fact, Zhou Yongkang.
Although Liu’s media profile was low before his detention last year, corruption watchers say his behavior made him infamous even among entrepreneurs believed to have links with the underworld. “I had heard about him before,” says Guo Yukuan, a writer on corruption issues and founder of the Open Commercial Thinking Forum in Beijing. “He is the sort of person who would throw a wine bottle at a celebrity’s head at public occasions if he was not happy. You see many gangsters, but not that many like him. [Few] could be so unruly for so many years. Not many could reach the scale he reached.”
While others connected to Zhou have been accused of corruption and abuse of power, the charges Liu faces as a murderous mafioso are even more serious. Indeed, Xuezhi Guo, a professor of political science and East Asian studies at Guilford College in North Carolina, believes the progress on Liu’s case could presage an announcement on Zhou’s fate.
“Liu’s case is a huge breakthrough,” says Guo, who has an upcoming article in the China Quarterly on how the Chinese Communist Party tries to control corruption through disciplinary agencies that themselves lack independence. “If you want to talk about corruption, well, everyone in power, or their families, could be considered corrupt. But ties to underground society? That’s a huge deal.”
Since taking office, China’s President Xi Jinping has unveiled a campaign to tackle official graft, promising to catch both low-ranking “flies” and high-level “tigers.” The campaign appears to be delving deeper into the halls of power than previous efforts by other Chinese leaders.
“Before, the way [Chinese officials] thought was as long as you are loyal to the party it’s O.K. if you are corrupt,” says Guo, who adds that both leftist and conservative elements in the party now are being targeted. “Xi’s administration has set up a clear boundary and rules for his anticorruption campaign.”
Last year, Bo Xilai, another Communist Party highflyer and former Chongqing party chief, was sentenced to life imprisonment for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. Bo was yet another associate of Zhou, and his sentencing capped the most scandalous political affair in China for decades. But Zhou would be an even mightier tiger. If he is disciplined, he will be the first member, retired or sitting, of the Politburo Standing Committee to be punished since the Cultural Revolution.
As for tycoon Liu, how could his alleged crimes in Sichuan have gone undetected for so long? The official People’s Daily opined in a Feb. 21 editorial that Liu must have had a protective security “umbrella” shielding him from investigation. The Communist Party’s mouthpiece did not specify who might have been holding that umbrella, although the paper did suggest that details would “be revealed as investigations into Liu’s case continue.” Meanwhile, Chinese used Weibo, the microblogging platform, to ridicule such careful official media commentary. “Umbrella? Who was the party chief of Sichuan when Liu Han violated the law?” wrote one Weibo user, referring to Zhou’s tenure in that province. “Is the central government blind and dumb?”
Back in Sichuan, where so many political and business heads have rolled, the focus on this populous province, as well as the nearby megalopolis of Chongqing, has some residents grumbling. Wang Kang is a commentator who was one of the few public figures to speak out publicly after the downfall of Bo, the former Chongqing party secretary.
“How come gangsters’ heads from Sichuan and Chongqing are treated more severely than those from Guangdong, Shanghai and the northeast?” he tells TIME. “To take down Zhou Yongkang, they shouldn’t need to bother with small players like Liu Han. The order is backward. Zhou should go down, then all his entourage should follow.”
Stay tuned. Such a fate for China’s former security chief could well be the final act.
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Gu Yongqiang / Beijing