The five-day trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power ended on August 26 with a command performance from the man who, with his extremely public downfall in early 2012, tore a hole in the Communist Party's façade of unity. Despite Bo's virtuoso showing, where he managed to portray himself as competent and sympathetic, the ink has mostly dried on his fate. The court will announce the verdict any day now, according to the state-run broadcaster China Central Television, and Bo is almost certain to be found guilty. But he's not the only one brought low. Many of his supporters in the Communist Party and the military are thought to have been purged. The biggest remaining question of the Bo affair is what will happen to Zhou Yongkang, the feared former security chief who former New York Times Beijing correspondent Nicholas Kristof once described as "a man who brightens any room by leaving it." Now, the net may be closing in on him: On Sunday, the Communist Party announced an investigation into Jiang Jiemin, a senior official in charge of state-owned companies and a protégé of Zhou's, in a move many see as further encroaching on Zhou himself. Bo's public downfall was shocking; Zhou's would be unprecedented.
Zhou oversaw China's security forces and law enforcement institutions from 2007 to 2012, and was widely reported to have been the only top Chinese official to argue against removing Bo from the elite decision-making body, the Politburo. The organization Zhou ran, the Central Politics and Law Commission, might have asked Bo to cover up the defection of his former police chief Wang Lijun, according to The New York Times. Zhou became increasingly influential as ethnic riots broke out in Tibet in 2008, and in the restive region of Xinjiang in 2009. Beijing was convinced of the importance of maintaining social stability. As the budget on domestic security kept growing -- in 2012 it reached $111 billion, nearly $5 billion higher than the entire official military budget --- so did Zhou's power.
Zhou, who oversaw China's immense security state, was like a Chinese Dick Cheney; the power behind the throne, said a Western academic familiar with the matter. He also said that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man known for his extensive surveillance network, "might have had" Zhou's reach. Officially, Zhou was the least powerful of the nine-member Standing Committee, the elite subgroup within the Politburo. But when I spoke with this academic in 2010, Zhou was probably the third most powerful man in China, behind President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, exponentially more influential than Bo.
The 73-year-old Zhou reportedly liked to show his power by feats of physical strength. "When he'd go places for investigation, he'd do like 50 or 100 pushups" in front of others, said a Chinese academic who lives overseas and is familiar with elite politics. In August 2007, 2 months before he ascended to the Standing Committee, Zhou visited a police station in south China's Yunnan province. He surprised onlookers by doing "ten sit-ups in one breath," after which everyone "spontaneously burst into applause," according to China News Service, a state-run news agency.
Despite these showy feats, Zhou is known to be extremely secretive, even by the opaque standards of a top Chinese politician. Rumors have long swirled around Zhou and his family, including his son Zhou Bin, now rumored to be under investigation, according to a source familiar with the matter, and his wife, thought to have died under mysterious circumstances, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Little is known about Zhou, his relationship with Bo Xilai, and how that may have led to his apparent sidelining after Bo's very public fall from grace in early 2012. But, clearly, he is not loved in China. In May 2012, a group of Communist Party veterans published a bold open letter calling for the removal of Zhou for having supported Bo. In February, human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang found his accounts on three Chinese microblogging sites suspended after posting that Zhou "wrecked the country and ruined the people" by mismanaging China's security apparatus.
Like other officials around his age, Zhou stepped down from the Standing Committee in November 2012 -- top Chinese politicians have a surprisingly strict retirement policy. The next Standing Committee downgraded Zhou's position to the regular Politburo. Kerry Brown, a China specialist at the University of Sydney, called the move a "very big rebuke to Zhou." Since then, Zhou has mostly stayed out of sight, leading to reports from overseas Chinese news websites, which aren't always credible, that he is under investigation. On Aug. 30, The South China Morning Post, a Hong-Kong based English newspaper with a better track record on elite politics than its peers, reported that top Party leaders have agreed to investigate Zhou for corruption. "There is a 50 percent chance that Zhou is in trouble, and that's a pretty big chance," says a person familiar with the matter.
It's impossible to predict the future; in the opaque world of Chinese politics, even the present is hazy. Thus, it's instructive to look into the past, at the case of Kang Sheng, Mao Zedong's urbane and cruel spymaster, and probably the last security chief to accrue as much power as Zhou. While Chinese politics during Mao's era were far more vicious, and Kang correspondingly far more feared than Zhou, the system of rules Kang played by during the anarchic decade-long Cultural Revolution still influence Chinese political infighting today. And Kang won. Communism, a social movement known for its tendency to consume its children, has few notable marquee survivors. China's survivor wasn't Mao Zedong -- when he died in November 1976, after a decade presiding over the Cultural Revolution, he could probably already feel the country slipping away from his grasp. Rather it was Kang, who died in 1975 of cancer, with his hands still gripping the levers of state security.