Is Zhou Yongkang China's Next Bo Xilai?

As investigations of the politician mount, another major legal case could be around the corner. 
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Zhou Yongkang (C) has close ties to the oil industry. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

Beijing has offered little information about the investigation of several executives from China’s top oil producer, except to accuse them of “severe breaches of discipline,” a phrase often used to invoke bribery and corruption.

But the focus on the oil industry itself and specific investigation of two of the four executives adds fuel to a growing sense that Beijing is building a corruption case against Zhou Yongkang. The recently retired-domestic security chief was until last year one of the country’s most powerful men -- although his embrace of labor detention camps and support for denounced politburo member Bo Xilai earned him criticism from the general population and Communist party leaders alike.
 
Zhou, 70, is a former general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), parent company of PetroChina, and remains closely associated with the oil industry. He is so unpopular among some party members that 16 of them, mostly in their 70s and 80s, circulated a petition last year calling for his retirement because of his support for Bo, and for, it was inferred, a “stability program” that called for tight controls over media and online information. Nonetheless, Zhou retired in November 2012 without incident.

Since then, though, investigations and detentions of people close to him have piled up.

Li Chuncheng, deputy party secretary of Sichuan province, where Zhou was party chief for three years, was detained in December. Wu Yongwen, a secretary of the Political and Legislative Affairs committee in charge of the labor camps run by Zhou, was detained in January. And Guo Yongxiang, Zhou’s aide for more than a decade, was detained in June. On Monday, officials said Wang Yongchun, the vice president of CNPC, who was close to Zhou, was being investigated. On Tuesday, three more oil executives were put under investigation, including Li Hualin, deputy manager of CNPC, who served as Zhou’s secretary, as Reuters notes.

So far, China’s state-run media, where information about the upcoming investigation or detention of former officials is sometimes leaked ahead of the official release, has been mum on the subject of Zhou. But numerous reports citing unnamed party sources have appeared in publications outside of mainland China, like Hong Kong’s Oriental Daily and the overseas Chinese Duowei News claiming an investigation is imminent. Zhou’s son, Zhou Bin, recently fled to the United States with the rest of his family, according to Boxun, a community website for Chinese citizens overseas. And a search for Zhou’s name on Baidu, the Chinese search engine, returns a message saying that “due to legal reasons” only partial results are returned. The latest report there is from May of 2013.

While Bo Xilai’s trial has been described as some of the most exciting political theater from China in years, maybe Beijing is just getting started.

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Heather Timmons is an Asia correspondent for Quartz.

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