China's anti-corruption campaign is ensnaring ever more senior figures, with speculation now swirling about the powerful former security tsar, but analysts are raising questions about its effectiveness and the political currents underpinning it.
The net could be tightening around Zhou Yongkang, who would become the most senior figure in decades to face investigation, after executives from a top state-owned oil company and a province that he headed came under investigation.
The intensification of the drive against corruption comes just after the sensational trial of former Communist Party bigwig Bo Xilai -- yet analysts say it could be motivated as much by political infighting, and could fail to make much headway against rampant graft.
"If there's any truth in the Zhou Yongkang story, then maybe this is the strategy to show that no one's immune," said Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.
"But it seems to me an unsophisticated kind of way to try and deal with what is actually obviously a very common and widely spread structural issue," he said. Even with a greater push to crack down on corruption, Brown said "it's just too slow for the amounts of wealth and the amounts of profits and the amounts of business we're talking about".
With no system of external accountability, allied to the fact that government bodies and state-owned enterprises play key roles in the economy, observers say that China's political class is so awash in graft that a genuine cleansing is effectively impossible. And analysts say that Zhou may well have been targeted by the new leadership to tackle a factional threat. Zhou was seen as a prime backer of Bo before the Chongqing boss's downfall, and despite retiring he retained much power as a former domestic security chief, when he sat atop a vast surveillance apparatus. New party and state leaders under
President Xi Jinping took office over the past year acknowledging popular dissatisfaction with the government and vowing to clean up. Xi warned that corruption could destroy the party and threatened to stamp down on high-ranking officials, or "tigers", along with low-level "flies". Several figures have been brought down, from Yang Dacai, a provincial safety official tried last week over a luxury watch collection, to former senior economic policymaker Liu
Tienan, ousted from the party on suspicion of taking bribes. Over the past week inquiries were announced into Jiang Jiemin, former chairman of the giant state-owned firm China National Petroleum Corp -- which Zhou headed from 1996 to 1998 -- and four other executives of the company. Li Chuncheng, the deputy party chief of Sichuan province -- which Zhou oversaw from 1999 to 2002 -- lost his post last December after coming under investigation. If investigated,
Zhou would replace Bo as the most senior figure to fall -- he was one of China's top nine politicians when he stepped down in November. But the timing of the Jiang inquiry -- so soon after he was tapped in March to run the government body that oversees state-owned enterprises -- undermines the credibility of anti-corruption efforts, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.
"It's either lack of coordination, lack of efficiency of the system... or the people who supported him have weakened and are not around any more," he said, as state media announced that Jiang had been dismissed from the government enterprises body. "I think it shows that the system doesn't work well." Bo's trial was seen as a purge of an ambitious and controversial figure, with corruption charges restricted to his early career and 27 million yuan ($4.4 million) -- far below the level of wealth associated with China's top politicians.
Meanwhile ordinary Chinese have been detained after reiterating longstanding calls for public officials to disclose their assets. Even such a move might achieve little in an economic system where opportunities for corruption at the intersection of state and business have proliferated in China's decades-long boom, for example, by taking kickbacks for massive government contracts or land-use rights. "It is assumed that ministerial- and Politburo-level officials as well as princelings (the children of high-ranking figures) can easily convert their political power into money," said Willy Lam, a China politics expert at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Senior officials are in a position to confer fantastic money-making opportunities on their children and cronies."