China corruption probe: Clean-up reaches apex of power with arrest of former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang

The investigation into the ex-domestic-security chief has broken an unwritten understanding that members of the committee would not come under scrutiny after retirement

China’s Communist Party has launched a corruption investigation into the former domestic-security chief Zhou Yongkang, one of the country’s most influential politicians of the past decade, in a case that has its origins in a party-power struggle.

Mr Zhou, 71, is by far the highest-profile figure caught up in President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption. Mr Zhou is the most senior Chinese official to be ensnared in a graft scandal since the party swept to power in 1949. He was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s apex of power – and held the post of security tsar until he retired in 2012.

A brief statement released to coincide with a regular party meeting said Mr Zhou was being investigated for suspected “serious disciplinary violations”, the usual euphemism for corruption, although it could also imply additional wrongdoing. “Jiang Zemin,  Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping reached a consensus to deal with Zhou Yongkang for violating party discipline,” a source with ties to the leadership said, referring to President Xi and his predecessors. The source said Mr Zhou was accused of corruption involving family members and accepting bribes for promotions.

Mr Zhou, who was last seen at an alumni celebration at the China University of Petroleum in October, could not be reached for comment. His son Zhou Bin had also been arrested, the influential Chinese magazine Caixin reported after news of the investigation into his father had been made public.

Sources with ties to the Chinese leadership have previously told Reuters that Mr Xi has been determined to bring down Mr Zhou for allegedly plotting appointments to retain influence ahead of the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, when Mr Xi took over the party. Mr Zhou had nominated Bo Xilai, a charismatic politician with leadership ambitions, to succeed him as domestic-security chief and had tried to orchestrate the younger man’s promotion to the Standing Committee. Bo later fell in a divisive scandal following accusations his wife murdered a British businessman in 2011. Bo’s wife was convicted over the killing and Bo himself was jailed for corruption and abuse of power last year.

Mr Xi has made fighting pervasive graft a central theme of his administration and has promised to go after “tigers” – or senior officials – as well as those of lower rank.

In ordering the investigation into Mr Zhou, Mr Xi has broken with an unwritten understanding that members of the Politburo Standing Committee would not come under such scrutiny after retirement.