By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing
In the weeks since the purging of rising Chinese political star Bo Xilai the Beijing rumour mill has been working overtime. But in recent days most of the growing chatter has focused on the fate of a much more powerful man: the country’s security chief, Zhou Yongkang.
Mr Zhou, one of the nine members of the Communist party Politburo standing committee that rules over the world’s most populous nation, was Mr Bo’s closest ally and argued strongly against excising him from the party, according to people familiar with the matter.
His efforts were in vain. Mr Bo, who was ousted as the party chief in the western city of Chongqing on March 14, was removed from all his Communist party positions last week and placed under investigation for “serious discipline violations”. His wife, Gu Kailai, has also been arrested in connection with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, whose death in a hotel room in south-west China triggered a series of events that ended in Mr Bo’s purge.
As a result, numerous diplomatic sources and Chinese people with close ties to the leadership say they believe Mr Zhou is fighting for his job, and an investigation has been launched into unspecified disciplinary violations.
“Zhou Yongkang’s imminent departure seems highly probable but whether he will be disciplined or prosecuted remains to be seen,” said Joseph Cheng, who is a well-connected expert on Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong. “He obviously sided with Bo Xilai and once the leadership decides to get rid of a senior cadre they can always come up with evidence of corruption and abuse of power.”
Mr Zhou spent 30 years as an official in the oil industry before becoming Communist party chief of the western Sichuan province in 1999. He was named minister of public security in 2002 and elevated to the standing committee in 2007, where he was given the national security portfolio.
Since then he has massively expanded the country’s repressive internal security and surveillance apparatus, rounded up thousands of dissidents and rolled back decades of legal reforms aimed at establishing an independent professional judiciary.
Zhou Yongkang is a member of China’s nine-member Communist party politburo standing committee in charge of security.
Born in December 1942, Mr Zhou joined the Communist party in 1964 while studying in the exploration department of the Beijing Petroleum Institute.
After the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966 he was sent to work in a geological survey team in north-east China and gradually worked his way up through the state-owned oil industry ranks until he was named head of CNPC, China’s largest energy company, in the mid-1990s.
He was China’s minister of land and resources from 1998-1999 and Communist party leader of Sichuan province from 1999-2002.
He was made minister of public security in 2002 and a member of the Politburo standing committee in 2007. He ranks ninth on the nine-member committee and is in charge of China’s courts, police, paramilitary and various domestic state security and spying agencies.
All of that makes Mr Zhou a more formidable presence than Mr Bo, who though he is the “princeling” son of a revolutionary hero and had a growing profile, was an up-and-coming leader rather than one at the pinnacle of power.
Some political analysts say ousting someone as senior as Mr Zhou would be seen as far too destabilising to the party and it is more likely he will stay until the end of the year when he and most other top leaders are scheduled to step down anyway.
Seven of the nine members of the standing committee, including Hu Jintao, the president, and Wen Jiabao, the premier, will step down this autumn in a once-in-a-decade power transition.
But, until he was purged, Mr Bo was a top contender for one of the seven positions and his downfall has thrown the carefully balanced succession negotiations into disarray.
Mr Zhou appeared in public on Tuesday with a visiting member of the Cuban Communist party and foreign diplomats in Beijing say his office has been actively seeking meetings with visiting dignitaries in recent weeks.
Analysts say this appears to be part of a conscious effort on the part of the authorities to debunk persistent rumours that he is under any pressure to resign or that there is disunity among senior leaders.
Much of the speculation has been fed by internet reports that are difficult to corroborate. For that reason much of it has been discounted by diplomats. “We’re hearing a huge amount of chatter about Zhou but for now it just appears to be unfounded speculation,” said one senior western diplomat. “After the decision was made to oust Bo Xilai we assumed there was consensus among the leadership and they would now close ranks and make sure everything was calm in the run-up to the party congress this autumn.”
According to Chinese-language US-based news site Boxun.com, in recent weeks, the 72-year-old Mr Zhou has made tearful self-criticisms to both Mr Hu and former president Jiang Zemin, political mentor to both Mr Zhou and Mr Bo. Boxun, which has published many reports on the scandal which have turned out to be accurate in recent weeks, also reported that Mr Zhou was now under secret investigation for unspecified discipline violations and crimes.
Unconfirmed Chinese internet reports also claimed a secret high-level meeting was held this week at which the party leadership was expected to decide whether or not to oust Mr Zhou.
Some of that has been confirmed by diplomats. On Friday, one foreign diplomatic source said they had been told senior Chinese leaders had cancelled some meetings this week because of an emergency high-level conclave held on Wednesday and Thursday.
A representative of the central committee of the Communist party of China told the FT that any significant meeting and decision would be announced publicly and that reporters should not publish any information that was not confirmed by the party.
Senior leaders in China regularly hold high-level meetings that are not publicly announced.
In a sign that reports of political infighting may be overblown, Mr Wen and at least four government ministers are scheduled to travel to Iceland, Germany, Sweden and Poland over the next week.
“If the leadership was really in crisis it seems unlikely that Wen would leave now,” said one European diplomat involved in planning Mr Wen’s trip. “From what we can tell it seems like business as usual.”
But this person also noted that the party’s complete lack of transparency was contributing greatly to the persistent rumours of infighting and imminent purges.