The terse, one-sentence announcement of the party’s investigation into Li was one of the most significant developments to date. It was posted Friday night on the Web site of the agency within the Communist Party that investigates corrupt cadres.
“I think it signifies that Zhou’s downfall may be just around the corner,” said Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator in Beijing.
Within the Public Security Ministry, Li is vice head of the office in charge of crackdowns on the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China. He is one of the roughly 350 elite leaders sitting on the party’s Central Committee.
Li, 58, was appointed to the position in 2009, during Zhou’s tenure as a powerful member of the Standing Committee, the party’s highest ruling body. Prior to that appointment, Li had no experience in public security. He had worked for 22 years at the government-run state broadcaster CCTV and then for almost a decade as a high-ranking official in the propaganda wings of the government and party.
In 2008, shortly before his appointment, Li attended a gala honoring the Public Security Ministry. Also in attendance was Zhou. The two have appeared together frequently in state media reports of party events. After his appointment as vice minister, Li accompanied Zhou on at least two trips to inspect government bureaus in other provinces.
“It signifies Zhou’s diminishing influence that those who worked under him are now stripped of the shield once offered by his power,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a human rights lawyer who has often fought against the vast security apparatus assembled by Zhou.
If it’s true that Zhou is the ultimate target of such investigations, party leaders, including President Xi Jinping, would be breaking an unwritten party rule against going after current or former Standing Committee members.
But as targets go, the famously stone-faced Zhou is a particularly palatable one for the Chinese public.
Zhou built China’s domestic security system into a feared, sprawling apparatus — as head of the Ministry of Public Security, then as the highest overseer of its police, courts, prosecutorial system and intelligence work.
During Zhou’s tenure, China’s spending on domestic security exceeded even its defense budget.
In a sign of the growing discomfort with the power Zhou had amassed, Zhou’s successor as security czar was not given a seat on the ruling Standing Committee when Xi and a new generation of top leaders were introduced last year.
The party’s purge and sensational trial of former high-
ranking party leader Bo Xilai was also seen as a knock against Zhou, who had been a longtime patron of Bo.
Since Bo’s downfall more than a year ago, rumors have circulated that Zhou might be purged. In recent weeks, those rumors have reached a fever pitch — reported by overseas Chinese Web sites and newspapers — and have gained credence as a number of officials close to Zhou have been investigated and arrested.
Many of the first officials taken down were linked to Zhou’s earlier career in China’s lucrative state-owned oil sector, which has come to be associated with widespread corruption.
Four oil executives have been detained. The former chairman of China National Petroleum Corp. has been fired. The former deputy party secretary in Sichuan, where Zhou once served as party chief, also has been placed under investigation.
Reuters and several overseas Web sites have said that Zhou’s son Zhou Bin has been placed under investigation and detention. Chinese authorities have remained silent on the matter. But Huang Zerong, a former editor of the Chengdu Daily, said police sources told him that Zhou Bin had been arrested. The elder Zhou’s “driver is also under authorities’ control now,” Huang said.
While analysts say that Zhou Yongkang is clearly being targeted for investigation, it remains to be seen whether he will be purged from the party and criminally charged.
“As chief of state security for years, Zhou had in his grasp a lot of material on other leaders,” noted Li Weidong, former editor of China Reform magazine. “I don’t know if Xi is prepared to have that kind of showdown. . . . What Xi wants now is to transform the tiger Zhou represents into a sickened cat that poses no threats.”
A key decision Xi needs to make is whether to move against Zhou with only allegations of monetary corruption or to include political ones as well, such as attempts at a power coup, analysts say. Political charges risk damaging the party’s image and admitting publicly to internal party struggles and divisions.
The timing, on the heels of the dramatic execution by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of his uncle, also draws unfavorable parallels for China’s party leaders.
“That’s what may have delayed further the official charges or announcements on Zhou’s investigation,” Zhang said.
The similarity to North Korea’s recent drama, he said, could cause “wide questioning over the political system, why leadership posts can’t be democratically chosen, why one-party rule requires such cruel political struggles.”
The clearest benefactor of the anti-corruption campaign and any further moves against Zhou is the president, analysts say. Xi is widely seen as having consolidated power more quickly in the past year than his predecessors.
“Xi is determined centralize power in his hands,” said Gao Yu, a political observer and former journalist for the state-run China News Service.
Guo Chen, Li Qi and Liu Liu contributed to this report.