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Beijing probing ex-security chief Zhou Yongkang

BEIJING -- China's ruling Communist Party has put former security chief Zhou Yongkang — one of its most powerful men — under investigation, it said Tuesday, the most senior official to fall for decades.

Zhou, who retired from China's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) in 2012, is being probed for “serious disciplinary violation,” the ruling party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, its internal watchdog, said in a statement.

The term is usually used to refer to corruption.

With the official announcement of the long-rumored probe, Zhou becomes the most senior member of the Communist Party to be investigated since the infamous Gang of Four — a faction that included the widow of founding leader Mao Zedong — were put on trial in 1980.

Zhou was seen as a patron of fallen political star Bo Xilai, who he is said to have backed for a slot on the PSC, but whose career imploded after the death of a British businessman, for which Bo's wife was convicted of murder.

The decision to investigate Zhou was made in accordance with the ruling party's constitution, and the “discipline inspection authority's case investigation regulation,” China's official Xinhua news agency reported.

The decision will have been preceded by extensive negotiations within the factionalized ruling party, but is still likely to send shockwaves through the political establishment, as PSC members have long been regarded as untouchable even after retirement.

Analysts said that the move shows party chief Xi Jinping has now amassed enough power to break even longstanding taboos in his much-publicized anti-corruption sweep.

“There is an unwritten rule that they will not go after former members of the politburo standing committee,” said Willy Lam, a politics specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“The party elders like Jiang Zemin and Li Peng and so forth were opposed to incriminating Zhou Yongkang,” he said, referring to China's former president and premier.

“It shows that Xi Jinping is powerful enough or resourceful enough to convince the party elders,” he added.

Xi has vowed to crack down on endemic graft among top party members, or “tigers,” as well as low-ranking members, or “flies,” but critics say he is unlikely to succeed without more fundamental reforms such as greater press freedoms and independent courts.

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In this photo taken on March 9, 2012, Zhou Yongkang, then-Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security, attends a plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AP)

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