Zhou Yongkang, the highest-ranking member of China’s government to be taken down on charges of corruption since the Cultural Revolution, stands accused of many things – taking massive bribes, offering “power and money” in exchange for sexual favors, and organizing various factions within China’s political system, chief among them the “petroleum gang” and the “Sichuan gang.” Zhou also stands accused of bad political judgment – namely, backing protégé Bo Xilai, the former Party chief of Chongqing, long after it became impossible to justify defending him.
But Zhou’s most serious crime – always hinted at, but never stated outright in official Chinese sources – appears to have been plotting against president and Party leader Xi Jinping. Zhou, Bo, and two other high-ranking officials since ousted for corruption (Ling Jihua and General Xu Caihou) have been given the nickname the new “Gang of Four,” a reference to the Cultural Revolution-era faction (led by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing) found guilty of usurping power during that tumultuous period. Rumors suggest the four men colluded to siphon power away from Xi.
Now, according to Bloomberg, new details have emerged on exactly how Zhou was plotting against Xi. Bloomberg, citing unnamed sources familiar with the investigation, says that Zhou used his position as head of China’s domestic security apparatus to spy on top leaders – including Xi. “Zhou used phone taps and other methods to gather information on the family assets, private lives and political stances of China’s leaders,” Bloomberg reports. One of Zhou’s assistants even released some of the information to unspecified “overseas Chinese language websites.”
Similar rumors emerged about Bo Xilai after his downfall in 2012. In April 2012, the New York Times reported that Bo’s downfall was set in motion in August 2011, when it was discovered that Bo was spearheading a widespread wiretapping program from Chongqing – even eavesdropping on then-President Hu Jintao.
By contrast, the “Wang Lijun incident,” often cited as the beginning of the end for Bo, didn’t occur until February 2012. Bo was officially convicted of corruption, and most of the narrative surrounding his downfall involved the sordid case of the alleged murder and cover-up of British citizen Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife. But the Times said that may have merely provided a convenient pretext for getting rid of Bo – it was his surveillance of top leaders that was actually “seen as a direct challenge to central authorities.”
“Internal party accounts suggest that the party views the wiretapping as one of Mr. Bo’s most serious crimes,” the Times noted. The Party’s investigation found evidence that Bo “tried to tap the phones of virtually all high-ranking leaders who visited Chongqing… including Zhou Yongkang.”
Spying on China’s top leaders appears to have been one of Zhou’s worst crimes as well, at least in the eyes of the Party. When the official indictment of Zhou was announced, one of the charges against him was the “intentional disclosure of state secrets, an act called “particularly serious.” Last week, Reuters reported that the state secrets charge stemmed from Zhou warning Bo that he was going to be ousted from the Party. However, given Bloomberg’s story, it may also be that Zhou (or his subordinates) leaked sensitive information on China’s top leaders – a crime that would be far more serious than giving Bo a slim chance to escape justice.