A net of anti-corruption probes appears to be tightening around China's former security czar Zhou Yongkang, with one of his former aides placed under investigation and a sweeping crackdown on organized crime in his power base of Sichuan, commentators said on Thursday.
Authorities in the southwestern province on Thursday accused mining tycoon Liu Han of running a huge mafia-like organization that carried out assassinations in broad daylight and ensnared large numbers of law enforcement officials in a web of corruption, official media reported.
Liu, a multimillionaire and former head of the Sichuan-based energy conglomerate Hanlong Group, had high-level ties with officials across Zhou's old stamping ground, analysts said.
He and his brother Liu Wei were charged with murder, assault and illegal detention, on a charge sheet totaling 15 offenses, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Their activities are believed to date back as far as 1993, since when they have accumulated around 40 billion yuan (U.S.$6.5 billion) in financial, energy, real estate and mining assets, it said.
Zhou retired from the all-powerful Politburo standing committee of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in a leadership transition in November 2012.
He had served as land resources minister and then provincial party secretary in Sichuan from 1998-2002, before being appointed minister of public security in Beijing.
Meanwhile, the party's central commission for discipline inspection said on Tuesday it is currently also investigating Ji Wenlin, vice governor of the southern island province of Hainan, an official statement said.
Ji, a former close aide of Zhou during and before his tenure as party chief of the southwestern province of Sichuan, is suspected of "severe violations of disciplines and laws," the commission said in a brief statement on its website. The phrase is often used to refer to corruption investigations.
Getting ready to charge Zhou
Speculation is mounting that the authorities may be getting ready to charge Zhou with abuse of power.
According to sources quoted in The New York Times, President Xi Jinping, who launched an anti-corruption campaign soon after Zhou's retirement, personally ordered the investigation surrounding Zhou and his power base in China's law enforcement agencies and petrochemical industry.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said he fully expects a public announcement that Zhou himself is under investigation sooner or later, now that Ji is officially included in the probe.
"Everyone is wondering how much power an aide could possibly wield," Pu said. "Of course he would have to take his own boss into account, and weigh up his patron's share."
"Zhou Yongkang's power base is being excised, so eventually they will announce it," he said. "Otherwise, they won't be able to wrap things up."
Pu said Zhou's rise to power had been very fast.
"Within a decade, he had got to the level where he could decide on the personal freedom of the people," he said.
"This was clearly not accidental; many stakeholders and different interests and [political] forces were deeply involved from the start."
No 'soft landing' for Zhou
Meanwhile, former Xinhua journalist Yang Jisheng, now deputy editor of the cutting-edge political magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, said there would likely be no "soft landing" for Zhou, now that all of the strands of his far-reaching power base were being targeted by the authorities.
"Chinese politics takes place behind high red palace walls, conducted by a small number of people," Yang said.
"[Zhou's] aide is in trouble now, while his petroleum, Sichuan and political and legal affairs networks of support are also all in trouble," Yang said.
He said Zhou was unlikely to emerge unscathed from the process.
"For [Zhou] to get off lightly now would require compromise from many sides, and would be hugely troublesome," Yang said.
"The tiger wouldn't have died, and would probably counter attack," he said.
Since taking office in March, Xi has warned that the party must beat graft in order to survive, and has launched a campaign targeting powerful "tigers" as well as lowly "flies."
But dozens of activists who called on high-ranking officials to reveal details of their wealth have been detained in recent months.
Forbes rich list
In 2012, Liu Han made 148th on a Forbes magazine list of the richest Chinese businesspeople, with a fortune estimated at U.S.$855 million.
He and his alleged gang are accused of blackmailing, threatening, beating up and murdering regular citizens and rivals, as well as running a vast protection racket of corrupt police and prosecutors to stay out of jail, Xinhua said.
The gang's connections enabled Liu Han to win a place in an influential advisory body at provincial level, the agency said.
It said the Lius' syndicate owned a fleet of several hundred cars that included Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Ferraris.
It said an investigation begun last March had gathered testimony from Liu Wei that the gang had paid off local officials with drug-fueled parties, money and gifts.
Founded in 1997, Liu's Hanlong owns a 13 percent stake in General Moly, a miner of molybdenum, a mineral used to harden steel, and 14 percent of Australia's Sundance Resources.
A sprawling conglomerate with interests in mining, construction of hydroelectric power, infrastructure and other businesses, the company has a global workforce of more than 12,000 people.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.