China's National People's Congress...Zhou Yongkang, China's top security official, attends a plenary session on the draft amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law as China's National People's Congress (NPC) takes place in Beijing, China, on Thursday, March 8, 2012. China is holding the fifth session of the eleventh NPC this month. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Zhou Yongkang
If convicted, Zhou Yongkang would be the most senior official found guilty of corruption since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 © Bloomberg

“When a man becomes a high official, even his chickens and dogs go to heaven.”

At the start of 2012, Zhou Yongkang was arguably the most powerful man in China. He controlled the country’s vast domestic security apparatus, with a budget of $100bn that exceeded spending on national defence. So deep were his political, energy and security ties that he was sometimes described as the Dick Cheney of China. And his trove of compromising secret files on influential people drew comparisons to another American: J Edgar Hoover.

As one of the nine-man standing committee of the politburo of the Communist party that in effect rules China, he was untouchable and all-powerful. His patronage network extended throughout the sprawling Chinese bureaucracy.

But this all changed last year when Mr Zhou (pronounced Joe) and many of his family members were detained by Communist party investigators. Details of their alleged corruption should be made public in the coming weeks, say people familiar with the investigations. Mr Zhou and his relatives are being held in the kind of secret prison that security agents under his control sent people regarded as a threat to the party.

If Mr Zhou, 71, goes on trial and is convicted, he will be the most senior official to be found guilty of corruption since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Mr Zhou’s corruption case has sent shockwaves throughout business and government bureaucracies. Since he formally stepped down a year ago, hundreds of officials and businessmen who owed their glittering careers to his ascent – including minister-level bureaucrats from the security services, state oil companies and the state asset administrator – have been detained on corruption charges.

The decision to purge him publicly will probably provide the climax for an anti-corruption campaign that has been the signature policy of Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, since he came to power more than a year ago.

Most observers assume Mr Zhou’s detention is as much the result of an elite power struggle as a desire to crack down on corruption. Mr Xi needs a scalp to show people he is in control and serious about tackling corruption. By purging Mr Zhou he also gets rid of a potential rival.

But the purge of Mr Zhou also exposes the biggest obstacle the authoritarian system faces as it seeks to cleanse itself of graft: the sheer size of informal power structures such as his.

Even if Mr Xi is intent on removing the rot at the top of the system, he cannot attack other senior leaders and their patronage networks because doing so would destabilise the entire Chinese power structure.

Tigers and flies

While Mr Xi has vowed to catch high-ranking “tigers” as well as lowly “flies”, the tens of thousands of officials who have been detained over the past year mostly count as flies.

“For the current leadership, taking down Mr Zhou in a tiger hunt will help them get rid of political opponents and solidify their political reputation,” says Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator. “But it will also expose the problems of the system. Will the general public be content with Zhou’s removal only or will they also ask questions about other senior officials?”

The tiger hunt is a hallowed tradition in the cut-throat world of Chinese politics. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Mr Xi’s predecessors, both waited until they had been in power for at least two years before they purged a powerful adversary: Chen Xitong, Beijing’s party boss in the mid-1990s in Mr Jiang’s case and Chen Liangyu, Shanghai’s boss, in Mr Hu’s.

Xi Jinping at the EU headquarters in Brussels
Show of strength: Xi Jinping, China's president © AFP

Mr Xi has moved much faster, and aimed much higher, by targeting Mr Zhou. Somewhat paradoxically, if Mr Xi does decide to put Mr Zhou on trial, it would suggest he still feels the need for a show of strength and that his grip on the nation may not be as strong as many believe.

The political risks of publicly purging Mr Zhou are heightened by the fact his allegedly corrupt patronage networks are mirrored in the careers of almost every other senior Chinese leader of the past three decades.

“Xi’s institutional power is strong but his power base is relatively weak,” says Bo Zhiyue from the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute. “Even if he knocks out everyone he cannot be strong because his power base is quite shallow.”

When he was selected as president-in-waiting in 2008, Mr Xi was considered a compromise candidate because he was acceptable to most large factions within the party.

He is the first president since the early 1980s not to be handpicked for the job by Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader, whose support bestowed enormous legitimacy on presidents Jiang and Hu.

Although he is the “princeling” son of a top party leader, Mr Xi’s own support network is not as extensive or as established as those of many other leaders, including Mr Zhou.

Humble origins

Mr Zhou’s long rise to the pinnacle of power began in a small village on the banks of the Yangtze River, where he was born into a peasant household in 1942.

He left the village at 15 and eventually graduated from the Beijing Petroleum Institute, launching his career in China’s energy sector. At school in the capital he changed his name from the provincial-sounding “Zhou Yuangen” to what he uses now.

Zeng Qinghong at the 18th Communist Party Congress
Powerful patron: Zeng Qinghong, former vice-president © Getty

His two younger brothers were given the family house instead of an education. But they still reaped the benefits as their brother worked his way up through the party ranks.

At the entrance to tiny Xiqiantou village, a huge, modern compound surrounded by high whitewashed walls stands on the spot where the humble Zhou home once was.

Neighbours of the Zhou clan say the compound was built with government funds by local party officials who would visit the family to pai ma pi, or “pat the horse’s bottom” – a popular term for sycophancy.

“Every holiday or festival there were always lots of expensive cars outside the Zhou house and senior provincial and city officials all came to pai ma pi,” said one villager who used to play with Mr Zhou and his brothers as a child. “Can you imagine? These uneducated peasants with all those powerful officials sucking up to them and bringing them gifts.”

During 30 years of working in the oil industry Mr Zhou built up a powerful network of patrons and clients, as well as a deep understanding of the intersection between power, money and national security.

By 1996, when he was named head of China National Petroleum Corp, he was already on the fast track to the Communist party’s inner circle of absolute power.

Although he rarely returned to his ancestral village, Mr Zhou made sure his family prospered. One of his brothers became the local deputy director for the Ministry of Land and Resources, a lucrative post for allocating land and mining rights. His sister-in-law established the only local dealership to sell and service Audis, the car of choice for Chinese officials.

According to villagers, a government plan in 1996 to demolish the entire village to make way for an “economic development zone” was suddenly halted when officials realised whose family graves they planned to bulldoze.

With the backing of Zeng Qinghong, former Chinese vice-president, his most powerful patron from the oil industry, Mr Zhou served as minister of land and resources, party boss of Sichuan province, and minister of public security in quick succession between 1999 and 2007.

That year he made it to the top of the party, when he was named to the Politburo Standing Committee.

He was handed the justice and law portfolio, giving him control over the courts, police and paramilitary. During the next several years Mr Zhou’s power increased exponentially as government spending on “stability maintenance” ballooned.

The Bo factor

Mr Zhou’s detention is intimately tied to the downfall of Bo Xilai, whose high-flying political career was ruined when his wife was found to have murdered a British businessman. Bo was detained in March 2012 and sentenced to life in prison last year for corruption and abuse of power.

Suspected plot: Bo Xilai, now serving a life sentence © Getty

Although there was no mention of it during his trial, Bo is suspected of having plotted with Mr Zhou to sideline Mr Xi and take his position as president of China, according to several people with ties to senior leaders.

Not long after Bo was arrested, Mr Zhou was relieved of day-to-day operational control of the security apparatus, as first reported by The Financial Times in May 2012. Within months, several of his protégés were being investigated for alleged corruption.

Since then Communist party investigators have detained hundreds of officials who owed their rapid advancement to their links with Mr Zhou. The long list of detainees connected to Mr Zhou offers an insight into how personal networks pervade the bureaucracy and how attachment to a powerful patron is the surest way to move up through the ranks.

Introductory service

In the formerly all-powerful state security apparatus, hundreds of spies and policemen have been purged in the past year, including the head of state security for Beijing, a Zhou protégé.

Li Dongsheng at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing
Purged: Li Dongsheng, former vice-minister of propaganda © AFP

Another casualty is Li Dongsheng, 58, who spent 22 years at China Central Television, the state broadcaster, where he rose to be deputy station chief and eventually China’s vice-minister of propaganda.

According to people familiar with his role at the station, in addition to his day job Mr Li regularly introduced senior party leaders to attractive young female reporters and anchors from the station.

These introductions included one he made between Mr Zhou and his second wife, a former CCTV anchor who is 28 years his junior. Mr Zhou’s first wife died in a car crash.

Despite having no experience in law enforcement, Mr Li was named to the influential position of deputy public security minister in 2009, two years after Mr Zhou took control of the domestic security portfolio.

At least 100 officials with ties to Mr Zhou in Sichuan have been detained, along with a dozen top executives at CNPC and its subsidiaries, among them Jiang Jiemin, its former chairman.

Demise of a dynasty

The business activities of Zhou Bin, Mr Zhou’s 42-year-old son, provide a striking example of how relatives of the powerful are able to use their connections to skim off profits from a wide range of state-owned ventures.

The younger Zhou’s empire covered everything from television production to mining, energy services, equipment for Chinese oilfields in Iraq, state-run affordable housing projects and even a plan to overcharge migrant workers for compulsory surgical procedures.

In several business and personal disputes, Zhou Bin threatened to retaliate against his adversaries using the formal police and state security apparatus under the control of his father, according to people involved in those disputes.

The younger Zhou was detained last year while Zhou Yongkang and his wife were placed under house arrest in Beijing in November.

According to a memo circulating among Beijing officials, investigators have so far seized almost Rmb100bn ($16bn) worth of assets from Mr Zhou, his family and associates.

The haul includes guns, fine art, armour-plated cars, hundreds of apartments, millions of dollars in cash and foreign currency, gold bullion and equity stakes in hundreds of companies, according to the memo.

Similar messages about previous corruption investigations have circulated widely among officials in the past and have sometimes proved to be just rumours. Several people who received this latest message said they believed it was being circulated by the authorities to lay the ground for an announcement on Mr Zhou’s fate.

Evening raid

At 7pm on December 1, a dozen plainclothes party “discipline and inspection” officers raided the apartment of Zhou Yuanqing, Zhou Yongkang’s youngest brother, in the city of Wuxi, about 40 minutes’ drive from their ancestral village.

The investigators stayed until 5am, according to witnesses, and when they left they took Zhou Yuanqing and Zhou Lingying, his wife, with them.

At about the same time, back in Xiqiantou village, the corruption investigators arrived to find Zhou Yuanxing, 69, Mr Zhou’s other brother, dying from bone cancer.

When his funeral was held in the village on February 12 only about 50 relatives attended.

His brothers and nephew were not there and nor were any representatives from the government.

“Those high-ranking officials used to line up to bring gifts and ask for favours from the Zhou family,” said one neighbour in the village as he washed vegetables for his dinner. “Now that Zhou Yongkang has been brought down in a power struggle they have all disappeared.”

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