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China’s anti-corruption push targets highest-ranking official yet

China’s Communist Party has placed under investigation the highest-ranking official yet to be ensnared in its corruption crackdown, Zhou Yongkang, former security chief and oil czar.

The investigation of Zhou had been rumored for months, but was officially confirmed Tuesday by Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency. Xinhua reported that the party’s central committee had decided to probe Zhou for suspected “serious disciplinary violation,” code words for corruption charges.

The Xinhua report didn’t detail the accusations against the 71-year-old Zhou, but it’s well known that he accumulated substantial wealth while rising through the party’s Politburo, leading the China National Petroleum Corp. and serving as the nation’s security chief. He retired from the Politburo in late 2012.

No higher-level leader in China has been investigated on suspicion of bribery and other misdeeds, a further sign that President Xi Jinping is serious about going after “tigers.” That’s his name for corrupt officials, whom he pledged to go after upon becoming party secretary in late 2012 and assuming the presidency in early 2013.

Even before the investigation of Zhou was announced, many in China were still marveling at the fact that authorities had announced last month an investigation of Xu Caihou, a former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, on suspicion of selling military positions. In a commentary July 17, top researchers at the Brookings Institution declared that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign “is the boldest and most serious that China has ever experienced.”

Since Xi came to power, more than 182,000 party officials at various levels have been investigated, with authorities taking action against 32 leaders at the level of vice minister or above, including five who are members of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite those numbers, there remains some skepticism in China about the staying power of Xi’s anti-corruption push and whether it will broadly uproot the systematic corruption that’s deeply entrenched in government and business transactions.

The government has jailed several activists who’ve called for top officials to disclose their wealth. Even on Tuesday, there was no opportunity for citizens to immediately discuss the official purging of Zhou. The government had blocked his name and related postings on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.

Zhou’s prosecution adds to the perception that Xi is directing his campaign mainly at a rival faction within the Communist Party, allies of former President Jiang Zemin. Xi rose to power under a different faction, and the most prominent “tigers” he’s prosecuted _ Bo Xilai, Liu Zhijun, Xu and now Zhou _ have been part of the Jiang camp.

The investigations have also elevated the stature of one of Xi’s top lieutenants, Wang Qishan, who heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which is investigating former Gen. Xu and Zhou. Some China watcher think Xi is grooming Wang to become president one day, but Wang might be making so many enemies that his rise may be blocked or he may find himself the focus of a future purge.

In their July 17 commentary, researchers Cheng Li and Ryan McElveen of Brookings said Xi must go beyond high-profile purges and institute real reforms in China to win back public trust.

“In the next few years, Xi should implement important measures like official income disclosure, property registration, conflict of interest regulations and judicial independence,” they wrote. “Otherwise, a new wave of official corruption will inevitably reoccur.”