China's state prosecution service said on Monday it is proceeding with a criminal investigation into three top allies of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, in a further sign that the government may be deepening the anti-graft probe into him and his former power base.
Former vice minister of public security Li Dongsheng and Jiang Jiemin, formerly a top regulator of state-owned enterprises, along with former China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) senior manager Wang Yongchun, are all under formal investigation by the Supreme People's Procuratorate, according to an announcement on the prosecutor's official website.
Until now, the majority of investigations have been carried out by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's own internal investigations department, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
The move to criminal proceedings could signal that Zhou will be formally targeted in a high-level corruption investigation that will have wide-ranging political implications.
Since taking office in March 2013, President Xi Jinping has vowed to go after high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies" amid a nationwide anti-corruption drive. However, no direct announcement has been made regarding Zhou's fate.
Zhou retired from public office in November 2012, and could become the highest-ranking party official to be targeted by an anti-graft campaign if he is eventually openly accused.
"Whether Zhou Yongkang can be formally prosecuted is a threshold Xi Jinping's government and the CCP is facing," New York-based Chinese human rights activist Liu Qing said.
"If Zhou Yongkang's case is finally made public, it means that the CCP can cross that threshold and that the highest-ranking leaders can be punished. But I am still not sure whether Xi can cross this threshold."
Sources following the investigation say dozens of Zhou's former colleagues, political allies, and family members have been detained or are helping the authorities with their enquiries.
Political, business empire
While state media has reported on the detention of many of Zhou's associates, it has only obliquely mentioned the probe into Zhou's political and business empire, which spanned the petrochemical and mining industries, a regional power base in Sichuan, and China's hugely powerful domestic security apparatus.
"I think Jiang Jiemin and the two others have a relatively close relationship with Zhou Yongkang, and everyone would guess their probe means that Zhou Yongkang investigation may soon be publicly announced, but it's hard to say," said Liao Ran, the senior program coordinator of the Berlin-based global corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Zhou, who was once a political mentor to jailed former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, stepped down from his post as Politburo standing committee member and head of the political and legal affairs commission in November 2012, where he wielded huge power, political analysts say.
His post has since been downgraded to report to the all-powerful Politburo standing committee.
According to Pin Ho, editor of New York-based Chinese news magazine Mingjing News, who has been following the probe in detail, said the sheer numbers of officials being investigated makes it hard for the party to keep tabs on attempts to fight a rearguard action.
"Some of my sources are telling me that because so many corrupt officials have been detained, some of them are seeking to muddy the waters," Ho said.
"They want to create a distraction and to put a spanner in the works of the agencies going after tigers," he said.
Little grass-roots benefit
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi said Xi's anti-graft campaign has spread throughout China, but with little tangible benefit for the country's 1.3 billion people, however.
"Although the fact that a lot of officials have lost their jobs makes people happy, a lot of people who lost their land, petitioners pursuing complaints, have yet to have them resolved," Huang said.
"Most people see the high-level anti-corruption campaign as a form of power struggle, and nothing more," he said.
He said the campaign would need to strike at grass-roots officials in government and party who typically hold sway over ordinary people's lives to make ordinary Chinese feel any benefit.
"When the anti-corruption campaign gets deep into the grass-roots levels of government, and in among the village and township-level officials, only then will people will enjoy the benefits," Huang said.
Meanwhile, the party could make a formal announcement on the Zhou investigation as early as next month, Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post reported.
It quoted sources as saying that the authorities are worried that publicly accusing Zhou, who was in charge of law and order for more than a decade, will shake public confidence in the legal system.
However, the party may bring its traditional fourth central committee plenum, which will focus on the rule of law, forward to late August or early September, amid mounting speculation on the Zhou probe, the paper said.
Zhou, 72, is believed to have been detained last December at an unknown location. Top leaders, including those now retired, will make a final decision on the case at an annual party conclave in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, the paper said.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service and Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Ping Chen. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.