China appeared poised for a public announcement about an allegedly corrupt former official in a widely publicized anti-graft campaign that has seen many of his associates’ political careers torpedoed.
At a press conference in Beijing on Sunday, a government spokesperson offered the first official hint that the fate of Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief, would not be kept under wraps from the public, as censors have partially lifted the restriction to search his name on Chinese social media.
“Anyone who violates the party disciplines and state laws would be seriously investigated and published, regardless of how high-ranking he is ” Lyu Xinhua, spokesperson for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said in response to a question from a reporter with the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper that has reported extensively on Zhou.
“Our serious investigation and punishment of party members and party officials who violated laws have shown that our talk is not empty talk,” Lyu said.
The spokesperson came short of offering any specifics about Zhou's situation, and ended by saying:” This is all I can say for now, but you know what I am implying here”, drawing a burst of laughters from the journalists at the scene.
The first official comment on the former politician came as China gears up for the annual parliamentary session, when many in the country are expecting the new leadership to break its silence on the episode.
Since stepping down as a member of the Chinese core leadership during the once-in-a-decade leadership transition in 2012, Zhou had made periodic appearances that kept pundits guessing whether he was in real trouble. But after emerging in an alumni celebration at the China University of Petroleum last October, Zhou has disappeared from the public eye.
His alleged detention over corruption charges is a staple topic in overseas Chinese media, and has been under great scrutiny from various foreign media outlets. Most notably, in a front-page story last December, The New York Times quoted four unnamed sources that confirmed Zhou’s detention.
With a bachelor’s degree in Geophysical Survey and Exploration, 71-year-old Zhou, like many members of the previous leadership, is a technocrat-turned politician. He held sway for almost a decade over China’s lucrative oil business by sitting at the helm of the state-owned oil conglomerate China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), the largest producer of oil and gas in the country.
Zhou’s promotion to higher offices came on the heels of his departure from the top boss position in Sichuan in 2002. That year, he secured a place in the powerful Central Political Bureau and was elevated to the head of Ministry of Public Security.
Five years later at an important Communist Party conclave, Zhou’s political career reached a climax after being selected as a member of the nine-person Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s elite ruling body.
As security chief and head of the law and politics committee, Zhou was responsible for overseeing China’s police apparatus, court system and intelligence work. During his tenure, Chinese government ‘s spending in “stability maintenance” had reportedly exceeded that of national security.
His political legacy was reportedly in free fall shortly after Chinese high-flying politician Bo Xilai was targeted for what the Chinese officials said was an anti-corruption probe. Bo, widely seen as Zhou's close ally, was convicted last year of bribery, corruption and abuse of power, for which he is now serving a life sentence.
Rumours about his trouble have intensified as China's President Xi Jinping reinforces his anti-corruption crusade that has purged quite a number of party officials, many of whom enjoyed close relationships with Zhou.
If Zhou indeed turned out to be one of the “biggest tigers”, a buzzword in reference to the most powerful officials, Xi would be breaking an unwritten rule that essentially shields former Standing Committee members from being prosecuted.
Many Twitter users have heeded the hint at the conference.
Wang Feng, an online editor with the South China Morning Post, tweeted:
“You know what I mean” — CNPCC spokesman drops first hint Zhou Yongkang investigation to be soon announced http://t.co/1V8HODxsaZ
— Wang Feng (@ulywang) March 2, 2014
Shanghai-based Edde, who is a self-described news junkie, wrote on his accounted:
Tomorrow should be the time when Beijing reveals the dark past of the Zhou Yongkang clique, right? pic.twitter.com/pTZoexOTxV
— edde (@Edourdoo) March 2, 2014
On China's most popular microblogging service Sina Weibo, Longcheng Yijiu wrote:
Many incidents had been exposed in the past [few months], all centering on either the oil industries or Sichuan. Looks like [the leadership] is trying to crack down by cutting wings and then catch the man when he is encircled.
An anonymous Weibo user commented:
Sometimes, certain words can't be spelled out explicitly. Now is not the good time to make an announcement, but it's going to happen soon. This is what [the spokesperson] meant.