China revealed late Thursday that it has concluded a secret trial of the highest ranking Communist Party leader to be ensnared in the country’s anti-corruption crusade.
Zhou Yongkang, the nation’s former security czar, was secretly tried in May in a Tianjin court and on Thursday was given a life sentence, state media reported, abruptly concluding one of China’s most riveting political dramas.
Until Thursday, it was assumed that Zhou, 72, might fight corruption charges in a high-profile trial this summer that possibly could disclose some of the party’s inner workings. But according to Xinhua news service, Zhou has pleaded guilty and will not appeal the court’s decision. With it, he becomes the most senior party official ever to be convicted of corruption in China.
Why Zhou was tried in secret will likely be debated for weeks. On Sina Weibo, China’s main social media platform, numerous posters suggested that the party was trying to throw a blanket over its dirty laundry.
But according to Xinhua, the Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court of Tianjin, some 40 miles east of Beijing, heard Zhou’s case in secret on May 22 because it involved charges of disclosing state secrets.
“Zhou leaked five ‘extremely confidential’ documents and one ‘confidential’ document to an unauthorized person identified as Cao Yongzheng, directly contravening of the State Secret Law,” Xinhua reported. Zhou was also convicted of abusing his powers and taking bribes of about 130 million yuan, or $21.3 million, Xinhua said, citing the court judgment.
Since Chinese leader Xi Jinping took control of the party in late 2012, the party has taken down thousands of government officials on corruption charges.
The anti-graft crusade – which skeptics say is mainly a political purge – has made Xi extremely popular among Chinese citizens. Many were impressed that Xi could arrest a powerful figure like Zhou, who at one time exercised control over China’s vast oil industry and domestic security forces and had allies in various provinces and ranks of government.
Charged with leaking state secrets, Zhou could have faced the death penalty. By effectively negotiating a plea agreement, Zhou was able to receive a life sentence. He was also deprived of his political rights for life and had his personal assets confiscated, according to Xinhua.
Chinese broadcaster CCTV showed images of Zhou standing before the court, flanked by police and wearing a white shirt and dark trench coat, with a grave expression on his face. His hair, once shoe-polish black, was completely gray.
Zhou retired in 2012 after decades of building his power base in the party. He served on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest echelon of political power, from 2007 to 2012, and was at one time considered a possible candidate to hold the dual positions that Xi now holds, president and Communist Party general secretary.
According to Xinhua’s account of the court judgment, Zhou’s wife, Jia Xiaoye, and son, Zhou Bin, took advantage of Zhou’s position to receive bribes worth 129 million yuan, or about $21 million.
Xinhua said the wife and son testified through video link and that all of their ill-gotten gains have been turned over to the government.
Within minutes after the conviction was announced, the party’s main mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, issued an editorial in Chinese.
“This (conviction) fully shows that there is no special party member in the face of party regulations, no special citizen in the face of national laws,” the editorial stated. “No matter if one’s power is big or small, or if one’s occupation is high or low, no one can be an ‘iron-capped king.’
“Iron-capped king” is a Chinese expression for high-ranking nobleman who receives special treatment from his peers.