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China's Former Spy Chief Zhou Yongkang Charged With Corruption

Hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members have been arrested or punished since President Xi Jinping launched a massive anti-graft campaign two years ago.
Image via Reuters

China has issued official charges against its ex-security chief and top "tiger" Zhou Yongkang, becoming the most senior Chinese figure to be prosecuted for corruption in more than 60 years.

The 73-year-old spymaster was originally detained last summer, before being arrested and expelled from the Communist Party in December as part of President Xi Jinping's two-year-old anti-graft campaign — which has become so far-reaching that some now believe it isslowing down the economy as officials cut their spending.On Friday, he was charged with bribery, abuse of power and the intentional disclosure of state secrets.

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The issued indictment, quoted by Chinese state media, accuses Zhou of using his position to illegally accept large amounts of money and property, resulting in a negative social impact. It says that the intentional disclosure of state secrets is a "particularly serious" act.

Zhou has also held positions in the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and been secretary of the Party's Commission for Political and Legal Affairs.

BREAKING: Former Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang charged with bribery, abuse of power, intentional disclose of state secretes

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews)April 3, 2015

He will be tried in Tianjin Intermediate People's Court, located in a city where he has never served and therefore would have minimal supporters.

Related: China accused of doling out counterfeit digital certificates in 'serious' web security breach. Read more here.

Zhou's is the most shocking fall from grace in a massive anti-graft campaign that was launched by Xi after he took office two years ago. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members have been arrested or punished.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection reported that the number of officials punished in China last year increased 30 percent to 232,000. Of these, the level of high profile "tigers" facing charges appears to be unprecedented.

Along with Zhou, others accused include Xu Caihou, former vice-chair of the central military commission, and Ma Jian, a deputy head at the ministry of state security.

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When faced with the figures, Chinese corruption specialist He Jiahong noted that while the scale of the investigation is impressive, it is not necessarily an indication of any fundamental change. "Comparatively speaking, hitting tigers and flies is easier than making systemic reforms," he told the Financial Times.

Others have expressed concerns that the focus on corruption is part of an effort by Chinese president Xi Jinping to cement his power, and that the campaign is being used to eliminate rivals.

Xi came to power as party general secretary in 2012 and became president in March 2013. Since then he has been labeled a "strongman," and leaked speeches and internal memos have suggested that he believes China is fighting an ideological battle against Western values.

Attention most recently turned to a newly released phone app, designed to provide easy access to Xi's "wisdom" — his writings and experts' reflections on them, related news reports, and a map that follows his travels. The app was designed by the Communist Party School, and its name translates to "Study China," though it has been dubbed the "Little Red App" after Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book."

This comes after Xi's portrait featured on a university art school entrance exam in February this year, when 12,000 Beijing University of Technology candidates were graded on their ability to recreate his likeness.

China has also come under international pressure for their recent jailing of female activists charged with public disorder offences. The women had planned to mark International Women's Day on March 8 by handing out leaflets and stickers to raise awareness of sexual harassment. The group have previously carried out relatively sedate stunts aimed at publicizing the plight of abused women.

While 10 women were initially arrested, five have been released. The activists who remain behind bars are Li Tingting, Wang Man, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan.

Speaking about the detention last week, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's foreign ministry, said: "No one has the right to ask China to release relevant persons, so we hope that relevant people will stop interfering in China's judicial sovereignty in such a manner."

Related: Here's how China is screwing North Korea's economy. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd