02:12 - Source: CNN
Former official arrested for corruption

Story highlights

NEW: Zhou arrested as part of corruption probe, expelled from Communist Party

Zhou Yongkang was a member of the ruling Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee

He's the highest-ranking official to get caught up in President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign

Zhou was also a patron of Bo Xilai, a former a fast-rising political star who was jailed for graft

Beijing CNN  — 

At the height of his power, Zhou Yongkang controlled police forces, spy agencies, court systems and prosecution offices across China – and the domestic security czar wasn’t shy in deploying his vast assets to crush dissent and unrest in the name of “preserving social stability.”

Before retiring in 2012, Zhou saw the domestic security budget swell to surpass that of the 2 million-strong Chinese military – the world’s largest.

As a member of the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee – China’s top decision-making body – Zhou was one of nine men who effectively ruled the country of more than 1.3 billion people.

Away from the spotlight, though, Zhou and his family members were reportedly taking advantage of his leadership position to accumulate enormous wealth.

After months of intense political rumors, the Communist Party’s disciplinary arm in late July announced an official investigation into Zhou for “serious disciplinary violations.” On Friday, state prosecutors alleged the investigation found that Zhou, 71, had taken advantage of his positions to garner profits for others, and had “accepted huge bribes personally and through his family.”

Zhou was also expelled from the Communist Party, according to state news agency Xinhua, citing a decision made Friday at a meeting of the party central committee’s political bureau.

Read: China announces investigation into security czar

Anti-corruption campaign

Many have viewed his fall from grace as a watershed moment in the secretive world of Chinese politics now ruled by President Xi Jinping. Xi has been spearheading a massive anti-corruption campaign ostensibly targeting “tigers and flies” – high-ranking and low-level officials alike.

“The important thing here is that Xi has proven he’s powerful enough to break this taboo of never incriminating former Politburo Standing Committee members,” said longtime political analyst Willy Lam with the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Unlike Xi, who is “Communist royalty” thanks to his father’s status as one of Mao Zedong’s comrades in arms during the revolution, Zhou was born to a poor family in eastern China.

His father was an illiterate farmer but borrowed money to send him to school.

That school, now called China University of Petroleum, was the cradle for titans in the state oil industry.

Described by many as a capable and humble young party cadre, Zhou was remembered more for his political savviness than technical knowledge.

Read: In China, ‘everyone is guilty of corruption’

Decisive leader

Overcoming factional wars in the ministry, Zhou was said to be a decisive leader who focused on expanding domestic oil exploration as well as overseas projects, a two-pronged strategy that would continue to this day.

In 2001, after a stint as minister of land resources, Zhou was named the Communist Party chief of Sichuan, one of the country’s most populous provinces.

Zhou also developed strong local ties and planted officials loyal to him – including secretaries he brought from Beijing – in key postings throughout the province.

Zhou’s big break came in 2002 when he returned to Beijing and was put in charge of the ministry of public security, which runs the country’s police forces.

Five years later, he rose to the apex of power by taking a seat in the Politburo Standing Committee – with an expanded portfolio that covered all domestic security affairs.

His reign coincided with a time of mounting social and ethnic unrest as well as such major events as the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Communist rule in 2009 and the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

Ruthless hardliner

As the leadership prioritized security and stability above all else, Zhou greatly expanded police power at the expense of already-limited judicial independence, cementing his reputation as a ruthless hardliner among political dissidents and activists.

It was also during this period that Zhou became a patron of Bo Xilai, a fast-rising political star who was waging a controversial war against organized crime in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing.

Bo’s spectacular downfall in 2012 – complete with tales of murder, bribery and betrayal – attracted global attention. State media cited his subsequent conviction on corruption charges as a prime example of Xi’s resolve to clean up the party.

Read: Bo Xilai: From rising star to scandal

Bo supporters, however, have long called him a political victim as the former high-flying politician was once considered Xi’s main challenger for the top spot of Chinese leadership.

“Zhou challenged Xi’s authority and threatened his rule – that’s why he’s now being held responsible along with his gangs,” said Hu Jia, one of China’s leading political dissidents, who was thrown into prison for more than three years on “subversion” charges when Zhou first took over nationwide law enforcement.

“The bottom line is: All officials are corrupt,” he added.

Lam, the Hong Kong analyst, said. “The people being investigated for corruption are on the losing side of factional struggles. People who are close to Xi are less liable to becoming incriminated.”

Zhou’s family, aides probed

Those close to Zhou have fallen with him.

Details have also emerged in Chinese media about possible skeletons in Zhou’s closet, including the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of his first wife.

Zhou’s older son, who is 42, is said to own multiple luxury properties worth millions of dollars.

State media reports also indicated that one of Zhou’s younger brothers, a onetime farmer, used Zhou’s influence to launch a “crisis management” business and profited from helping people get out of jail, enter police academy and sell steel pipes to state-owned oil fields.

Other published articles have depicted an intricate web of officials, cronies and tycoons – some with alleged mafia connections – orbiting around the domestic security czar before the crumbling of his power structure.

“I think, unlike Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang will cooperate with investigators because his family is involved,” analyst Lam said.

Read: Is China’s corruption crackdown really a political purge?