$14.5 Billion Seized From Former China Security Boss

March 31, 2014 Updated: March 30, 2014

A Chinese Communist Party investigation squad recently seized some of the vast assets held by former security czar Zhou Yongkang, according to Reuters. The investigation of Zhou has long been rumored about and all but officially confirmed.

According to reports, the recent seizures included bank accounts, stocks, bonds, hundreds of properties, antiques, paintings, precious metals, expensive liquors, and a lot of cash in multiple currencies, altogether adding up to about $14.5 billion. 

It is not clear if those assets represent the extent of the wealth that Zhou Yongkang accumulated after decades in high-level positions in the Communist Party, including many years as the unquestioned head of its security apparatus. From 2003 Zhou was the head of the Public Security Bureau, and in 2007 was promoted to secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a Party agency that coordinates the expansive Chinese communist security state, and which operated with no oversight. He had that position until the leadership changeover in November 2012, and almost since then suspicions have swirled that he would be investigated and punished.

Zhou is at the center of an investigation that has so far snared 300 of his relatives, assistants, underlings, and allies, according to Reuters, that cited “sources who have been briefed on the investigation.” 

The destruction of Zhou’s political network has not been a secret in the Chinese press: the authorities have for months allowed news to dribble out about investigations, arrests, and internal disciplinary procedures against many individuals with whom Zhou was known to have close ties. 

Investigations targeted each of the sectors in which Zhou had accumulated political capital, including in the petroleum and energy sectors, in Sichuan Province, in Liaoning Province—he held positions in both locations during his career—and in the security apparatus. 

At no point has Zhou Yongkang been formally named as being at the center of the investigations. However, recently an official representative for an advisory body to the Communist Party was publicly asked whether Zhou was under investigation. Lü Xinhua, the spokesman of the advisory body, said that a range of high-level investigations have been launched, including against “high-level officials who had serious disciplinary problems” (a euphemism for corruption). He indicated that he could not give a direct answer to the Zhou question, but in a now-famous final line, added, “You know what I’m talking about!”

Reasons to Move

While the official explanation for the investigation and possible arrest and punishment of Zhou Yongkang lies in his illicit accumulation of assets, there are likely other, graver reasons that Xi Jinping, the current head of the Chinese Communist Party, would seek to move against him. 

These relate in part to his close associations with Bo Xilai, the former Politburo member and Party chief of Chongqing, who was deposed and jailed in a separate investigation that concluded last year. Bo was a longtime protégé to Zhou Yongkang, and Zhou had sought to lift Bo into the Politburo Standing Committee—the regime’s ultimate seat of power, with currently only seven members—and hand him control over the security apparatus. 

Zhou Yongkang had himself been appointed to head up the security forces by Jiang Zemin, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party from 1989 until 2002. Throughout the decade of the 2000s, however, Jiang maintained a behind-the-scenes role in Chinese communist politics, keeping protégés in key posts and holding influence over some key policies. His pet crusade was a brutal persecution against the Falun Gong spiritual practice, which both Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang enthusiastically implemented. 

Reports emerged in early 2012 that Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai’s plan had been augmented to include weakening Xi Jinping’s position, and then sidelining him entirely—effectively a political coup. Chinese communist history is replete with factional struggle, conspiracy, coups and coup attempts, and purgings of this kind. 

Political observers believe that Xi Jinping, having been threatened to such an extent by Zhou Yongkang, now has no choice but to purge Zhou, lest he be seen as a weak leader.