China's corruption crackdown snares a tiger

The investigation of Zhou Yongkang, a senior party official and former security tsar, is a historic milestone in China's anti-graft campaign and is likely to send reverberations across the political system.

Yesterday was International Tiger Day, an obscure festival founded more than four years ago at the Saint Petersburg Tiger Summit. The goal of Tiger Day is to promote and protect the expansion of wild tiger habitats, according to its website. 

It is with supreme irony that one of the biggest ‘tigers’ in China was placed under investigation last night for serious disciplinary violations (a codeword for corruption). The tiger who has been put behind bars is Zhou Yongkang, the feared former security tsar and a member of the standing committee of the politburo of the Chinese communist party, making him one of the most powerful men in the country.

It is not since the much dreaded Cultural Revolution that a member of the standing committee of the politburo has been officially placed under investigation, marking a historic day in modern Chinese history. On the same day, his son was reportedly arrested for corruption by Chinese authorities.

The amount of money involved in Zhou’s corruption probe is absolutely scandalous. Reuters reported back in March that Chinese authorities seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($A15.5bn). Zhou’s illicit assets include bank deposits totalling 37bn yuan, domestic and overseas shares and bonds worth 51bn yuan and 300 apartments and villas worth around about 1.7bn yuan.  

Zhou’s official charge does not come as a total surprise to many. Rumours of his house arrest have been circling around foreign media and overseas Chinese press since last year. There has been a constant stream of news reports about the arrest of his former associates from the petroleum industry, Sichuan province, and recently security services, sparking speculation about the timing of his arrest.

Chinese authorities started pulling teeth from Zhou as far back as in December 2012, when deputy party secretary of Sichuan province Li Chunsheng was arrested at the Beijing International Airport, making him the first senior official to fall from grace since President Xi Jinping ascended to power. Li’s arrest was significant because Zhou served as a provincial party secretary between 1999 and 2002.

Sichuan province was one of three power bases for Zhou. Liu Han, a close business associate of Zhou’s son and a native of Sichuan, had extensive business interests in Australia, including Moly Mines in Western Australia. Liu was sentenced to death by Chinese authorities for running a mafia-style crime syndicate. Scores of officials and businessmen from Sichuan have been arrested, charged and sentenced since.

According to Caixin, China’s top investigative magazine, the rope around Zhou really started to tighten in August 2013 when a close associate of his son was arrested at a Beijing train station. Zhou’s son has been heavily involved in China’s petroleum industry and Zhou spent the better part of his career in the industry.

One of the most senior protégés of Zhou to fall from grace is Jiang Jieming, who was the head of China’s largest oil producer, China National Petroleum Corporation, and the agency that oversees all of China’s biggest state-owned companies. There has been a thorough purge of tainted oil executives since last year.

The third and final assault on Zhou’s power base is the country’s powerful security services. Zhou’s most important power base is arguably the country’s security service, which has a bigger budget than the People’s Liberation Army. He was in charge of China’s vast security apparatus from 2002, when he became the minister of public security.

The rug was pulled from under Zhou’s feet in December last year when Li Dongsheng, the deputy minister of China’s powerful public security ministry, was arrested. Since then, all five of Zhou’s former personal secretaries have been placed under investigation as well.

The investigation of Zhou marks a historic milestone in China’s anti-graft campaign, though it is still debatable whether he is merely a political victim of President’s Xi’s push to consolidate his political power.

President Xi’s unprecedented crackdown on corruption is likely to reverberate across the Chinese political system. The party’s principal mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, says the investigation of Zhou does not mark the end of the campaign. The anti-corruption drive is likely to become of one of the most significant forces shaping the country’s political and economic landscape for years to come.

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