China's ruling Communist Party announced an investigation into a former security chief on Tuesday, underlining President Xi Jinping's firm grip on power and breaking a longstanding taboo against publicly targeting the country's topmost leaders.
The party's anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said on its website that it is investigating Zhou Yongkang for serious violations of party discipline, but gave no details. Such an announcement typically paves the way for the official to be ousted from the party and face prosecution.
Until his retirement in 2012, Zhou was one of nine leaders in the party's ruling inner circle — the Politburo Standing Committee — whose incumbent and retired members had been considered off-limits for prosecution in recent decades in an unwritten rule aimed at preserving party unity.
However, Xi has vowed to target both low- and high-level officials in his campaign to purge the party of corruption and other wrongdoing that has undermined its legitimacy in the public eye.
By targeting Zhou, who had commanded China's massive domestic security apparatus before his retirement, Xi demonstrates the considerable power he has amassed since he took the helm of the party in November 2012.
By dismantling Zhou's spheres of influence, Xi has also freed up important positions in strategic areas of the government, security apparatus and state enterprises that he can fill with his own allies.
The announcement ended months of speculation over Zhou's fate that had built up as several high-ranking officials and businesspeople and dozens of other known associates came under investigation. One after another, they disappeared into the custody of party investigators, foreshadowing the problems that lay ahead for Zhou.
Zhou was perceived as being somewhat untouchable, with expansive patronage networks covering the sprawling southwestern province of Sichuan where he had once been party boss, the state oil sector, as well as the police and courts.
More significantly, as China's security chief, he oversaw the country's domestic spy agencies, a position that afforded him access to information on other high-ranking politicians who might pose a threat to him.
The Associated Press