WASHINGTON — For the Chinese Communist Party, building a corruption case against a top Chinese official is a delicate science. Accuse them of too paltry an embezzlement, and it makes the charges seem like petty infighting. On the other hand, accuse them of "robbing the state and devastating the people," as the expression goes — and it casts doubt on the establishment for allowing such massive looting to occur. The Goldilocks amount justifies the purge while maintaining the integrity of the system that husbands it.
Now, for the first time, there are numbers attached to the alleged crimes of China’s feared former security chief Zhou Yongkang. In a nice scoop, Reuters reported Sunday that Beijing has seized $14.5 billion from family and associates of Zhou, who is reportedly under virtual house arrest. In related Zhou news, the murder trial for business tycoon Liu Han and 35 of his associates began on March 31 in the central Chinese province of Hubei. China’s official news agency Xinhua claimed that Liu and his associates had "accumulated enormous wealth in property, mining, and electricity" via illegal means, adding that his "criminal empire" had assets of roughly $6.4 billion. Respected Chinese newsmagazine Caixin has drawn a link between Liu and Zhou’s son Zhou Bin — and their alleged relationship may be used in the case against Zhou Yongkang.
It is unknown how the government arrived at those numbers, and how closely they correspond to Liu and Zhou’s alleged pilfering. Reuters claimed the money seized from Zhou and his associates came from nearly $6 billion in frozen bank accounts, $8.2 billion in overseas bonds and stocks, about 300 apartments and villas worth roughly $270 million, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of vehicles, antiques, and contemporary paintings. (They also seized cash, gold, silver, and "expensive liquor.")
Either way, both amounts are strikingly high.
They are much higher than the $3 billion accumulated by the family of the recently retired Premier Wen Jiabao, according to a 2012 New York Times story, and much higher than the millions attributed to the families of current President Xi Jinping, and fallen Chongqing Party boss Bo Xilai. (There was no evidence of wrongdoing by Xi or Wen.) It’s worth noting that Bo was convicted of misdeeds with an amount of money that at the time unprecedented for his rank: in a trial in the summer of 2013, Bo was convicted of taking $3.2 million in bribes. Of the two other Politburo members convicted of corruption since 1989, former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu was convicted of embezzling $335,000 in 2008, while former Beijing Party Secretary Chen Xitong was convicted of embezzling a paltry $67,000 in 1998.
It is unknown how much Beijing will accuse Zhou of receiving — if they’ll ever formally accuse him of anything at all — but it’s another indication that they may be preparing the ground for something massive.
Issac Stone Fish is an associate editor at Foreign Policy and formerly a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek. Tea Leaf Nation is Foreign Policy’s blog about news and major trends in China.