A court in the northern city of Tianjin on Thursday handed a life sentence to former Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang after finding him guilty behind closed doors of corruption and disclosure of state secrets, official media reported.
"Zhou Yongkang was sentenced to life imprisonment Thursday for accepting bribes, abusing his power and deliberately disclosing state secrets," Xinhua news agency quoted a ruling from Tianjin's No. 1 Intermediate People's Court as saying.
The news of Zhou's sentence, which also included the confiscation of his personal assets and deprivation of political rights for life, was broadcast fifth in the news running order by state broadcaster CCTV, which showed footage of Zhou, much thinner than in previous photos, white-haired and with bowed head, flanked by two policeman.
Zhou's sentence followed a secret trial on May 22, in spite of earlier pledges from the Supreme People's Court that the trial would be held openly, suggesting Beijing is anxious to play down the case amid growing disquiet at the reach and power of President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption movement.
"Involving disclosure of state secrets, Zhou's trial was not open to the public," Xinhua said, adding that Zhou had pleaded guilty and will not appeal.
Zhou, who is the highest-ranking member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the first former member of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee to be targeted so far in Xi's anti-corruption campaign, has reportedly accepted all the charges against him.
"The basic facts are clear. I plead guilty and repent my wrongdoing," Xinhua quoted him as saying.
"Those involved, who bribed my family, were actually coming after the power I held, and I should take the main responsibility," he said.
The court found that Zhou, who once headed the powerful Politics and Law Commission in charge of the state security police and who was instrumental in developing a heavy-handed nationwide "stability maintenance" security regime, had taken bribes of around 130 million yuan (U.S.$21.3 million).
He had also sought profits on behalf of five associates amounting to some 2.14 billion yuan and causing losses to the state of 1.49 billion yuan, the court said in its judgment.
Zhou, who commanded huge political support and financial clout via the domestic security regime and through state-owned petroleum and mining interests, and in the southwestern province of Sichuan, had also leaked five top secret state documents to an unauthorized person, it said.
According to the court, most of the money was accepted by Zhou's wife and son without his prior knowledge, and Zhou asked his relatives to return the money.
His confession, the return of the bribes, and a lack of serious consequences resulting from his disclosure of state secrets had all contributed to a "lesser punishment," it said.
Zhou's post at the head of the Politics and Law Commission was downgraded to report to the Politburo standing committee post following his retirement in November 2012.
However, the "stability maintenance" regime he spearheaded has continued to expand its reach, commanding a budget of some U.S.$33 billion in 2014, a figure which has since been kept secret.
There was no mention of rumors that Zhou had plotted an attempted coup against Xi's administration along with disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, his political protege.
According to Jin Zhong, editor of the Hong Kong-based political magazine Kaifang, the lack of a death penalty in the case suggests that an unspoken consensus has been reached among party elders that former leaders won't be executed for graft.
"I think the Chinese Communist Party leadership has already agreed to a few basic principles ... meaning that high-ranking officials won't be given the death penalty for corruption, no matter how corrupt they are," Jin said.
"We can see from the court judgment that Zhou Yongkang has been given some leeway ... because he is only being accused of taking bribes worth ... much less than figures that were previously leaked," he said.
"There was clearly a lot more at stake in this ... behind-closed-doors trial ... than these few lines of text can address," Jin added.
"Zhou Yongkang" was the top search term on Chinese Twitter-like services on Thursday, according to the anti-censorship website Free Weibo, which recorded few deletions since Zhou's sentencing was announced.
Comments on the censored Sina Weibo site were largely positive.
"Well played, Daddy Xi; Zhou is another tiger in the net of the law," user @dexiaomaque commented under a news post on the sentencing.
"He turned grey all of a sudden," @tinghaozijun commented, while @yanleidehuanxiang added: "This is a result worthy of the people! Everyone is equal before the law."
Greater central control
Xi recently moved to centralize control of the party's powerful Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), suggesting that the anti-graft network could be less influenced by party committees at local level.
Analysts said the move suggests that Beijing's campaign is meeting with growing resistance from local governments and party committees, causing chaos that could threaten the campaign in future, however.
"Xi and [CCDI chief] Wang [Qishan] ... are hoping that the anti-corruption campaign will continue to develop within the ranks of the party, but right now they are meeting with unprecedented resistance," Xie Tian, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, told RFA.
"The entire system relies on power and top-down authority, and as soon as there is a lack of clear direction, there will be chaos," Xie said.
"It's not just the rest of the world that doesn't know what's happening; they don't really know internally, either," he said. "Nobody knows how long this chaos will go on for."
A legal worker who gave only a surname Zhang agreed.
"There is a huge backlash within the party machinery against the anti-corruption campaign," Zhang said.
He said many people are worried at the amount of power being handed to the CCDI by the Xi administration.
"Since the 18th Party Congress [in November 2012], the power of the CCDI has expanded exponentially, first with the setting up of CCDI committees within central government departments, including the National People's Congress (NPC)," Zhang said.
"At local level, the CCDI secretaries used to report to the local party committees, but now they report directly to the CCDI in Beijing, including those at provincial level," he said.
Reported by Shi Shan and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.