By John Ruwitch
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A state-run Chinese newspaper has for the first time identified former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang as the father of a businessman who is being investigated for graft and implied that Zhou himself is also under investigation for corruption.
Sources have said that Zhou, 71, is the most senior Chinese politician to be ensnared in a graft scandal since the Communist Party took power in 1949, but the case is highly sensitive and has been shrouded in secrecy with hardly a shred of information confirmed by authorities or reported in state media.
Late on Monday, the Global Times newspaper said on the website of it English-language edition that businessman Zhou Bin was "Zhou's eldest son", a comment it repeated on Tuesday in its English-language print edition.
In a separate commentary, the newspaper said: "It seems that the investigation into Zhou hasn't concluded yet." The newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, did not give a source for the information.
Rumors have been swirling for weeks that Zhou Yongkang and Zhou Bin were father and son and confirmation in state-run media would appear to indicate more openness about the elder Zhou's case. That, in turn, could indicate enhanced consensus among top leaders on the elder Zhou's fate.
President and party chief Xi Jinping has launched a sweeping crackdown on deep-rooted corruption since taking power, vowing to take down high-ranking "tigers" and lower level "flies".
But it is unclear if the government will actually put Zhou Yongkang on trial and risk embarrassing revelations about China's elite becoming public, undermining confidence in the party.
Zhou was a patron of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who was jailed for life in September for corruption and abuse of power in the worst political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four led by the widow of former leader Mao Zedong at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Zhou retired in 2012. He was last seen at an alumni celebration at the China University of Petroleum on October 1.
The government has not even confirmed that he is under investigation because he remains influential and the issue is highly sensitive within the party, which prefers to project an image of unity rather than infighting.
"WE MEAN IT"
Zhou Bin has been the subject of a flood of reports in Chinese media in recent weeks, and sources told Reuters late last year he was cooperating in an investigation into accusations of corruption against his father.
It has not been possible to reach either Zhou for comment.
Several associates of the elder Zhou have been detained in the investigation and the Beijing News reported on Monday Zhou Bin's paternal uncle and aunt were also detained in December.
Chinese media reports have alleged that Zhou Bin used his connections to make huge gains via business with China National Petroleum Corp, the country's biggest oil and gas company, and selling made-in-China equipment to overseas oilfields operated by Chinese firms.
Asked about Zhou Yongkang on Sunday, the spokesman for China's parliamentary consultative body told reporters the government was committed to fighting corruption and had investigated "leading officials". He did not name Zhou.
"We are doing this to demonstrate to the whole party and the whole society that when we see that anyone violates law and party discipline they will be investigated and dealt with severely, and no matter whom they are or what their position is, we mean it," the spokesman, Lu Xinhua, said.
"I'm sure you understand," he added.
In the two days since, "I'm sure you understand" has become a catch phrase on the Chinese Internet, where some have interpreted it as a hint that Zhou is indeed under investigation.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Robert Birsel)