Party "weighing cost" of going after former Standing Committee member and security czar Zhou Yongkang, scholar tells The Hindu

With the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) on Friday placing a top Vice Minister of Public Security under investigation for “serious discipline violations”, the new leadership under President Xi Jinping has widened a corruption crackdown that has already ensnared two Central Committee members and has, according to analysts, begun to rewrite the unwritten rules of power-sharing that has governed internal politics in China for the past three decades.

The CPC’s internal investigators said on Friday they were investigating Li Dongsheng, the Vice Minister of the powerful Ministry of Public Security or police authority, for “suspected serious law and discipline violations”.

Mr. Li becomes the second leader of the 205-member Central Committee to be placed under investigation in the corruption crackdown launched by new President Xi Jinping.

Earlier this year, Jiang Jiemin, head of the state assets regulator and former chairman of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), a powerful State-run oil firm, was removed from his post and placed under investigation. Prior to Mr. Jiang’s removal, Wang Yongchun, a CNPC deputy general manager, and Li Chuncheng, the deputy Party boss in Sichuan province, were also placed under investigation.

The four purged officials share a common connection: they all have ties to the former security czar Zhou Yongkang, who served on the elite 9-member Politburo Standing Committee, the CPC’s inner circle, from 2007 to 2012. Mr. Zhou retired in November along with former President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao after the once-in-ten year leadership change.

Mr. Zhou rose through the Party ranks from the oil industry, spending a decade at CNPC, where he became Party boss of the group in 1996. He later worked as the Party chief in Sichuan, before being appointed the Minister of Public Security in 2002.

Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian and close observer of CPC politics, told The Hindu in an interview that the CPC was “still weighing the benefits and costs” of going after Mr. Zhou.

“The only time a Politburo Standing Committee member was charged was during the Gang of Four [arrests of 1976],” he said, referring to an unwritten rule of internal politics.

However, with this year’s corruption crackdown, the CPC has methodically – and publicly – dismantled Mr. Zhou’s power base, from Sichuan to CNPC and now to the Public Security ministry. Mr. Zhou’s fate remains uncertain.

Mr. Zhang, the historian, said “the case will be pursued in the way that brings the least damage to the party.” In the decade under Hu Jintao, Mr. Zhou rose to become one of China’s most powerful politicians. When Mr. Hu took over in 2002, Mr. Zhou was appointed Minister of Public Security, moved out of Sichuan province and promoted under the orders of the former President Jiang Zemin, Mr. Hu’s predecessor.

In 2007, he was promoted to the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, and given charge of the Political and Legal Affairs Committee (PLAC), a powerful body in charge of the domestic security apparatus, from the police to the judiciary. Under his control, the security machine vastly expanded its powers, for the first time securing a budget that exceeded even that of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Mr. Xi, who took over as President in November of last year, has promised to crack down on both “tigers and flies” in curbing corruption – referring to both junior officials and top cadres – viewing the crackdown as a means to boost legitimacy amid wide public resentment on the rampant graft within the party.

Mr. Zhang, the historian, said the crackdown was “more of a political struggle” even if the purged officials are being prosecuted on corruption charges, reflecting an attempt by the new leadership - and Mr. Xi in particular - to forcefully dismantle centres of power seen as challenging its authority.

Regarding Mr. Zhou’s case, he said it was known that the problem was about politics, specifically related to his support of the disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai, who was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year.

“If a political charge is made towards Zhou, it will be a huge political shock to the public as everyone will know there has been a power struggle,” he said. “Economic charges," he added, "will cost the party the least, because everyone knows that party officials have a corruption problem”.

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