BEIJING (AP) — Prosecutors charged former national security chief Zhou Yongkang with corruption and leaking of state secrets, setting the stage for him to become the highest-level politician to stand trial in China in more than three decades.
The Supreme People's Procuratorate announced the long-expected indictment on its website Friday following a lengthy investigation that also scrutinized Zhou's former allies in government and the oil industry, but gave no new substantial details of the accusations against him.
A former member of the Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the dour-faced and once-feared Zhou had been under investigation since late 2013, and has been unavailable for comment since then.
"Announcing the charges against him means the beginning of the end for Zhou," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, reflecting the widely held notion that Zhou's conviction was virtually assured.
Zhou, 72, is the highest-level official charged as part of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign that began in late 2012. He would be the highest politician to face court since the 1981 treason trial of Mao Zedong's wife and other members of the "Gang of Four" who persecuted political opponents during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Although the case against Zhou has been touted by state media as showing the party's determination to fight corruption regardless of one's rank, it also has been widely perceived as part of factional politics in the ruling party's uppermost echelon and the removal of a potential rival for Xi.
"Corruption commonly exists among the party's senior officialdom, and so it looks like Zhou is another example of being the loser of a power struggle," said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based commentator and historian.
The charges against Zhou are not political. Still, the country's Supreme Court last month said in a report that Zhou and Bo Xilai — another top official to fall from grace in the corruption crackdown — had both engaged in political activities that damaged the unity of the ruling Communist Party. The wording left it unclear whether the two were being accused of plotting together or separately.
Yang, the Chicago-based analyst, said the case against Zhou reflects the Xi administration's need to rid the country's vast and judicial apparatus of the influence of the former security czar and his allies, as the government seeks to bolster the legitimacy of the courts.
The prosecutors said Zhou was charged with bribe-taking, abuse of power and intentionally leaking state secrets. It characterized the allegations against him as especially severe, and said he took "huge amounts" of bribes, but gave no substantial details.
It was unclear how open Zhou's trial would be, or when it would take place. However, Bo's trial came about a month after his indictment in July 2013.
The charge of leaking state secrets raised the tantalizing possibility that the case could involve political infighting at the party's highest levels. As China's security chief, he oversaw domestic spy agencies, a position that afforded him access to inside information on other senior politicians who might pose a threat to him.
However, that charge also likely gives authorities a reason to close the trial, or at least parts of it. The proceedings are likely to be tightly stage-managed, and the people allowed into the courtroom strictly vetted.
"It's safe to say, everyone inside the court, including the members of the public and the lawyers, will be trusted by the party," said Si Weijiang, a prominent Shanghai-based rights lawyer.
Zhang, the historian, said he expected Zhou to receive an even harsher sentence than the life imprisonment given to Bo, meaning the former security chief could face a suspended death sentence or even execution.
Zhou was once seen as untouchable, with a vast patronage network covering the southwestern province of Sichuan where he used to be party boss to the state oil sector, police and courts.
He spent the early part of his career in the oil industry, rising through the ranks over several decades to become the general manager of China National Petroleum Corp., one of the world's biggest energy companies, in 1996.
A series of senior figures from the state-owned oil industry have been detained in the anti-corruption crackdown.
Last month, Jiang Jiemin, the former chairman of the stated-owned parent of PetroChina Ltd., Asia's biggest oil producer, was indicted on bribery charges. Jiang is believed to have been an associate of Zhou, though prosecutors have not cited any link between the two cases.
The charges against Zhou were lodged by prosecutors in the northeastern port of Tianjin, which means that Zhou will be tried there, about 120 kilometers (74 miles) southeast of Beijing.
Chinese authorities typically hold trials of senior officials away from their power bases to minimize the possibility of interference with the judiciary.