Rumors of a Corruption Probe Swirl Around China’s Former Security Czar

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Nelson Ching / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Zhou Yongkang, China's former top security official, attends a plenary session on the draft amendment to the criminal-procedure law in Beijing on March 8, 2012

It doesn’t help that Zhou Yongkang, China’s ex-security czar, looks like an archetypal movie villain, with his slicked-back hair and steely-set jaw. For months, untoward rumors have swirled around the nation’s former supreme policeman, especially after Zhou’s associate, former Politburo member Bo Xilai, was purged last year. On Aug. 30 the Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post, expanding on claims made earlier by Chinese exile websites, reported that China’s current leadership has signed off on investigating Zhou for alleged corruption.

If a probe into Zhou’s controversial career does go forward, it would be the first such action against a member of China’s ruling inner circle in more than three decades. Until late last year, Zhou was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s leadership clique.

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The current Standing Committee, which was unveiled last November, is now commanded by General Secretary Xi Jinping. China’s new leader has made tackling official corruption one of his signature campaigns. Even as skepticism mounts over whether the Communist Party is truly committed to weeding out endemic graft, Xi has vowed to capture everyone from humble “flies,” or low-ranking officials, to “tigers,” or top leaders. Zhou, who helped construct the nation’s security state through a $110 billion budget that officially surpasses that of the Chinese military, would be a mighty tiger indeed.

In recent weeks, the Chinese Communist Party’s judicial arm has circled ever closer to Zhou. On Aug. 26, the trial of Bo, the former Chongqing party chief, concluded; a guilty verdict on charges of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power is expected soon. A number of former officials in Sichuan province, which Zhou once helmed, have also been locked up. This week, the Chinese government announced that high-ranking executives from China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), the nation’s biggest state-owned energy company, were being investigated, including one for “gross violation of party discipline,” often a code word for corruption. Guess whose former job included helping oversee CNPC? That would be Comrade Zhou.

Now 70, Zhou retired from the Standing Committee last year because of an age limit. At first, it seemed a convenient way to allow an unpopular party elder to exit the inner sanctum. But if Zhou is being pursued by the party because of the fortune his family has allegedly accrued through illegal means, according to the South China Morning Post, then his gray hair — albeit still dyed a shiny black, as is customary for Chinese senior leaders — may not save him. Chalk one up for Hollywood casting.

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