BEIJING -- In a move calculated to show President Xi Jinping's resolve not to let precedent stand in the way of fighting graft, China's leadership brought corruption charges against a former member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee on Friday.
Zhou Yongkang, who headed China's security apparatus under ex-President Hu Jintao, was indicted on charges of bribery, abuse of power and intentional disclosure of state secrets. Never before under Communist Party rule has someone of Zhou's stature been brought to heel in such a way.
Zhou is expected to stand trial in Tianjin as early as this year and could face life imprisonment or worse. How much access foreign media will get to the courtroom remains to be seen.
Preparations for the indictment appear to go back to at least December, when Xi replaced Tianjin party secretary Sun Chunlan with Huang Xingguo, said to be close to the president. The city's public security bureau also underwent a personnel reshuffle. These steps seem to have been meant to root out any influence that Zhou might retain there.
The recent death of Gen. Xu Caihou, once the top uniformed member of the People's Liberation Army, also seems to have affected the timing of the charges against Zhou. Xi's campaign against corruption, by which he has amassed considerable political clout, has bagged a number of high-profile "tigers," starting with Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai in 2013. Xu fell last year, along with Zhou, and the timing of his trial had been a matter of speculation until he died of bladder cancer last month. Zhou's indictment seems meant to keep the fight against corruption in the public eye.
Chinese are wondering who will be the next "tiger" caught. Rumor among party insiders has it that Gen. Guo Boxiong -- like Xu, a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission under Hu -- is already under investigation. The Chinese Internet, too, is rife with speculation about possible targets, albeit couched in code words meant to elude censors. Among the figures mentioned in online posts are former President Jiang Zemin, who still has clout as a party elder, as well as two men loyal to him: ex-Premier Li Peng and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong. Current Vice President Li Yuanchao is rumored to be the next Communist Youth League alumnus to fall after Ling Jihua, Hu's right-hand man, who was brought down last year.
At the same time, some online comments express disillusionment at the extent of dirty deeds uncovered in the party. A party insider acknowledges that "the anti-corruption campaign has boomeranged" on the government.
A Chinese magazine reported Wednesday that Liu Tienan, a former vice chairman of China's economic planning commission jailed for bribery, had amassed 150 million yuan ($24.2 million) illegally, along with his family. If true, that would be much more than the 35 million yuan in ill-gotten gains described at his trial. Doubts about such politically charged court cases are becoming more pronounced. One recent online post calls trials in China "a farce."