July 30, 2014 at 1:00 am

China corruption probe reaches higher

Ex-security czar is the most senior figure swept up in campaign

Zhou (LIU JIN / AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing— China announced Tuesday that its powerful former security czar is under investigation, confirming the hushed whispers that have been circulating over the last year.

Zhou Yongkang is the most senior Chinese figure to be swept into the net of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

Until 2012, when Xi took power, Zhou was on the Politburo Standing Committee, the most elite ruling body in China. What makes the case so dramatic is that, since the late 1970s, standing committee members have enjoyed an unwritten immunity, adopted at the end of the Cultural Revolution to prevent the Communist Party elite from destroying one another in power struggles.

The official New China News Agency did not describe the charges but merely announced in a terse statement that Zhou was under investigation for a suspected “serious disciplinary violation,” generally code for corruption. At this stage, the investigation remains with the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

The square-jawed Zhou, 71, was the personification of the national security apparatus, making him until recently one of the most feared men in China.

Until his retirement, Zhou oversaw the police, domestic intelligence, courts and paramilitary forces, commanding a budget larger than the People’s Liberation Army. He led the oil giant China National Petroleum Corp. in the 1990s and had planted many of his proteges in key positions.

China watchers are debating whether Zhou’s prosecution is merely an old-style purge of political enemies or a sincere reform effort on Xi’s part.

Some suggest that Zhou’s cronies were so entrenched in state-owned enterprises that they were preventing Xi from carrying out sweeping reforms to rebalance the economy away from exports and toward consumer spending.

In the internal wrangling leading up to Xi’s 2012 ascension to the helm of the Communist Party, Zhou was thought to be in the losing camp. A protege of former President Jiang Zemin, Zhou reportedly tried to protect Xi’s rival, Bo Xilai, who was convicted last year in a salacious corruption trial.

Last year, 182,000 party officials were punished, according to a commission report to state media.