This has not been a good week for powerful people in Communist Asian countries. After months of rumours, The New York Times is reporting that Chinese president Xi Jinping is formally opening an inquiry into a powerful member of the Communist Party's innermost circle: its former chief of domestic security.
The accusations levied at Zhou Yongkang – murder, corruption, and plotting to overthrow the government – detonates the perception that China is loath to hassle its topmost political leaders with such sticky matters as the law. To give a sense of how significant this is, The Daily Beast called Zhou China's third most powerful politician. In American terms, this would be akin to President Lyndon B. Johnson taking on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. And if the convictions stick, it would be a likely death sentence for Zhou, not to mention a huge indication that President Xi's anti-corruption campaign means business.
Though state media has been vocal about Xi's tough stance since his bold entry earlier this year, the numbers themselves have appeared to underwhelm. But he promised to catch tigers, not flies, and it appears he may have caught one, and would represent a bold power play.
The Times reports that while the government had been covertly investigating Zhou for months, quietly restricting his movement, he is now under house arrest with his wife in Beijing.
Mr. Xi and other leaders agreed by early December to put the elder Mr. Zhou directly under formal investigation by the party’s commission for rooting out corruption and abuses of power, the sources said. They said a senior official went to Mr. Zhou’s home in central Beijing to inform him about the inquiry, and Mr. Zhou and his wife, Jia Xiaoye, have since been held under constant guard.
To this point, the biggest bust has been the case of Bo Xilai, a trial that made headlines internationally for the fact that Bo was once a rising political star who sits on the Politburo and whose father was once friends with Chairman Mao. That's small potatoes now, as Zhou – who counted Bo as a close ally – was once part of the elite Standing Committee. (Bo, for what it's worth, was found guilty of all charges in a trial that was hailed as very transparent despite the fact journalists weren't actually allowed into the courtroom.)
It's also worth noting that both Bo and Zhou are widely known to have been involved in the persecution of Falun Gong, a meditative practice that the Communist Party saw as being too big for its britches before cracking down – often inhumanely – upon the spiritual movement in the late 1990s.
One of the charges against Zhou, seen as something of a strongman, centres around an affair with a woman who is now his wife. After the affair was discovered, he promised to divorce his wife – who died soon after in a car crash. Chinese media have reported that his drivers have confessed that Zhou ordered the car crash.
Again, to The Daily Beast, for the rest of the allegations:
In addition, recent overseas reports claim that Zhou had been accused of playing a key role in mafia-style killings of several political opponents, including three businessmen and a prominent military figure, and plotting to seize power from President Xi Jinping to protect the economic interest of his family and friends.
The investigation has been long simmering, since at least 2012.