A corruption investigation into China's former security czar Zhou Yongkang has widened to cover his family and allies, with analysts speculating Monday that the authorities may be ready to charge the former member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's elite Politburo Standing Committee with abuse of power.
Official Chinese media announced on Friday that the Communist Party's disciplinary agency is currently investigating Li Dongsheng, vice minister for public security, for "suspected serious law and discipline violations."
Analysts said that investigators, who are already questioning Zhou's son Zhou Bin, are now openly probing Zhou's inner circle, suggesting that an announcement on Zhou himself can't be far away.
"The passports of a lot of key figures in Zhou Yongkang's sphere of influence have been confiscated," Pin Ho, editor of New York-based Chinese news magazine Mingjing News, said in an interview on Monday.
He said the scale of the investigation was already 'huge,' as Zhou's extended family controlled petroleum-linked assets across several Chinese provinces, including Sichuan, Hubei, Jiangsu and Liaoning, as well as the capital, Beijing.
According to Ho, officials told a recent economics meeting of the party's Central Committee that Zhou's relatives are suspected of acquiring 100 billion yuan (U.S. $16.5 billion) of corrupt money.
Zhou is the most senior official to be ensnared in a graft scandal since the Communists came to power in 1949. His membership of the Politburo Standing Committee had made him among the handful of men who made China's key decisions.
Zhou's son Zhou Bin is currently under investigation into the suspected acquisition of tens of billions of U.S. dollars through corrupt petroleum-related transactions, he said.
"The numbers of people [involved] are really huge, and they're being dealt with group by group," he told RFA's Cantonese Service.
"We will see a number of high-ranking officials arrested in the spheres of law enforcement and the petroleum industry in Sichuan, Hebei, Liaoning and even Jiangsu over the coming years," Ho said.
Announcement in the not-too-distant future.
Ho said the authorities are getting ready to charge Zhou with abuse of power in relation to his family's business opportunities, and that an announcement will be made in the not-too-distant future.
"Deputy public security minister Li Dongsheng is under investigation, and he was promoted by Zhou Yongkang, which means that there is some involvement in Zhou Yongkang's case," Ho said.
But he said the investigation into Zhou's business interests and political connections will likely take "many years."
"Zhou Yongkang controlled the entire law enforcement system and the petroleum industry, and also had ties with state security organizations," Ho said.
"All of this is extremely sensitive, and the authorities want to deal with it bit by bit."
According to political affairs commentator Wei Po, Zhou became a target as soon as Xi was announced as party chief in November 2012, however.
"The moment Xi Jinping took power, Zhou Yongkang was a half-dead tiger who was going to be targeted come what may," Wei Po wrote in a recent commentary on RFA's Cantonese Service.
Zhou is the highest-ranking political ally of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was jailed for life in September for corruption and abuse of power.
Xi's anti-corruption drive
President Xi Jinping has pursued what some call an aggressive anti-corruption drive since coming to power a year ago.
"Zhou tried to help Bo Xilai to usurp the position of the most powerful man in the party, which is something that Xi Jinping cannot tolerate," Wei Po said.
He said former president Jiang Zemin and his political allies had also constrained Xi behind the scenes, and that Xi had likely agreed with Jiang's allies to sacrifice Zhou.
However, Beijing-based history scholar Zhang Lifan said the government is unlikely to make any further announcements regarding Zhou ahead of the politically sensitive 120th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth on Dec. 26.
The commemorative event will see 17 former members of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee gathered in the same venue, all of whom are likely to have different views on Zhou.
"The fact that Li Dongsheng is being investigated shows the probe has already penetrated Zhou's inner circle of influence," Zhang said. "I think more officials are going to be arrested."
Zhang said the announcement was unlikely to come ahead of the Mao event on Thursday.
"I think the bulk of it will happen before Chinese New Year; or at least that's likely," he said.
"I think they want to keep their authority and play their cards quite close to their chests, and that it's likely that these cards are pretty strong ones."
Murder of ex-wife
Earlier this month, the U.S.-based news website Boxun reported that Zhou, 71, has been accused of involvement in the murder of his ex-wife. The website also said that Zhou had attempted to assassinate Xi.
Former 1989 student leader Wang Dan, who is now based in the U.S., said the probe into Zhou's relatives and political allies had little to do with an attempt by the Communist Party to clean up the government.
"Now that the dust has settled from the 18th Party Congress [in November 2012], Xi Jinping's power is consolidating," Wang wrote in a recent commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service, adding that reports of a coup plot headed by Zhou had some credence.
"Xi Jinping needs another excuse to go after Zhou Yongkang and his secret acts and attempts at a coup," Wang said.
"That excuse is pretty easy to find: corruption. [But] anyone who thinks that Zhou is being targeted because of his corrupt activities greatly underestimates the Chinese Communist Party," he said.
Meanwhile, veteran U.S.-based dissident Wei Jingsheng said Zhou had made a large number of enemies during his years in charge of the powerful political and legal affairs commission, which oversees the feared state security police.
"It's not just ordinary people who hate him; a lot of officials hate him too," Wei said in a recent interview.
"But it hasn't been easy for Xi Jinping to go after Zhou Yongkang, and it's taken from the beginning of the Bo Xilai affair [in February 2012], and it's not even finished yet," he said.
Wei said Zhou's security regime and business interests had wielded "huge power" before he stepped down from the Politburo standing committee. Zhou's post has since been downgraded to report to the committee.
"[Zhou and his allies] wielded a huge amount of power, and threatened a lot of people's existence, including a lot of officials," Wei said.
"Once they go after him, he will come to a bad end."
Zhou served as public security minister from 2002, before being promoted to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee between 2007 and 2012, in charge of domestic security, including the state security police.
Under Xi Jinping, Zhou's post as head of the political and legal affairs commission was downgraded after his retirement, amid widespread concern that it had become an independent and overly powerful fiefdom that contributed to the Bo Xilai scandal.
Zhou was last seen in public at the China University of Petroleum National Day celebrations on Oct. 1.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Shi Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.