No questions and no answers on Zhou Yongkang's fate

In this March 12, 2011 file photo, Chinese former Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang (C) shakes hands with delegates as he attends a group discussion of Shaanxi Province during the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of
In this March 12, 2011 file photo, Chinese former Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang (C) shakes hands with delegates as he attends a group discussion of Shaanxi Province during the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Talk that he is set to face disciplinary action soon after this year's ongoing NPC session has led many reporters to pepper delegates with questions of whether they have any insider information.-- PHOTO: REUTERS 

The media's question-and-answer segment of the meeting had ended, said the moderator, but the journalists weren't quite done yet.

Raising their hands and trying to outyell one another, many tried to get southwestern Sichuan province's party boss Wang Dongming to comment on one burning topic: the fate of China's ex-security czar Zhou Yongkang, who is believed to be indirectly responsible for the spate of corruption probes in the province.

Over the past year, dozens of businessmen and government officials have lost their jobs - seemingly over corruption though more likely due to their connections to Mr Zhou as his former subordinates when he ruled the province in the late 1990s.

Their dismissals, along with reported probes into Mr Zhou's family members, are seen as part of a dragnet that Chinese President Xi Jinping has mounted against one of China's most powerful leaders until recently.

Mr Zhou was a member of the apex Politburo standing committee (PBSC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) until the leadership transfer in November 2012, when he stepped down.

But questions on Mr Zhou's fate were glaringly missing during the 30-minute question-and-answer session, with the floor given mainly to Chinese reporters. This frustrated the 50-odd journalists, including foreign ones, who had waited two hours for Sichuan delegates to finish extolling the government's work during a meeting held on the sidelines of the annual session of National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, for the media segment.

As the reporters clamoured for more time, Mr Wang obliged with an obtuse reply that gave little away: "Let me say a few words.

"Although some have been arrested for corruption, these are black sheep and the minority. They do not represent the behaviour of all officials, including those in Sichuan."

He also pledged to step up the crackdown on corruption and to implement administrative reforms so as to "lock powers in a cage".

However, Mr Wang remained stubbornly mum on the fate of Mr Zhou, only cracking a smile as reporters pressed him for details.

The scene at Sichuan's meeting on Thursday shows how Mr Zhou has remained one of the most talked-about characters, though he might not be involved or present at the ongoing national legislature session.

His whispered name lurks in the cavernous halls and maze-like corridors of the Great Hall of the People as delegates and reporters discuss what could be one of the biggest shake-ups of the CCP.

If the talk turns out to be true, the 71-year-old would be the most highly ranked CCP official, albeit retired, to be brought down in a formal inquiry.

Mr Zhou's overt support for former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai even after the latter's political downfall in March 2012, as well as his alleged use of the state security apparatus for personal benefits, had reportedly earned him the ire of the top leadership.

Talk that he is set to face disciplinary action soon after the NPC session has led many reporters to pepper delegates with questions of whether they have any insider information.

Some delegates, tired of repeated questions about Mr Zhou's fate, have come up with quirky ways to sidestep the issue.

A popular response is "Ni dong de", or "You understand what I'm getting at" in English. This was also the reply given by Mr Lv Xinhua, spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, at a press briefing last Sunday to a question on Mr Zhou. The annual session of the top political advisory body is held concurrently with the NPC one.

While some declined to comment, others like Sichuan delegate to the NPC Kang Yongheng put on a brave front, calling the recent spate of arrests a positive move to clean up the government and regain the confidence of the people.

"It doesn't matter if it's Zhou Yongkang or Bo Xilai. All this talk only goes to show the government's firm attitude towards tacking corruption," he told The Straits Times.

Another Sichuan delegate to the NPC Liu Yonghao told The Straits Times he doesn't have the slightest clue even though some of the delegates have interacted with Mr Zhou in the past.

"As businessmen and entrepreneurs, sometimes when we gather, we'll discuss these issues and remember the times we interacted with some of these officials who are now in trouble," he added.

"But our information regarding Mr Zhou comes mainly from media reports, we are not entirely sure what is happening."

esthert@sph.com.sg