Politburo member has not appeared in public since the shock dismissal of his ally, sparking rumours of a power struggle and even a coup.
Speculation rife over top Chinese leader
BEIJING // There has been intense speculation in recent days over the future of one of China's senior leaders after the sacking of his close ally, the former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai.
The absence in public of Zhou Yongkang, China's security chief and a member of the nine-strong politburo standing committee, the country's top governing body, led to the suggestion in media and online comments that the 69-year-old may have been sidelined following a power struggle linked to Mr Bo's dismissal, which was announced on March 15.
It comes at a sensitive time for the Communist Party, with most of the country's top officials set to retire as part of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition that begins later this year.
Reports in state media this week of thousands of security officials being sent for retraining in Beijing did not mention Mr Zhou, something commentators have seen as unusual given that he is in charge of internal security.
His absence on Thursday from a legal conference in Shanghai intensified speculation, although Mr Zhou did send a letter to the gathering.
Online rumours have even suggested Mr Zhou attempted a coup in Beijing early last week, following a heavier than usual security presence and unsubstantiated reports of shots being heard around the Communist Party's central leadership compound.
The coup rumours are thought to be without foundation, although their existence and the flurry of online chatter surrounding them has been widely reported outside mainland China.
It is difficult to verify what is happening, said Bo Zhiyue, the author of the book China's Elite Politics, while adding that the coup rumours were almost certainly false.
He said it was unlikely Mr Zhou had been sidelined, but his continued presence on the politburo standing committee could only be confirmed once he appeared in public.
"I could have a little doubt while Zhou Yongkang is absent from the public scene," said Mr Bo, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.
He said there could be an innocent reason, such as illness, to explain Mr Zhou's failure to appear since the controversy over the sacking of Bo Xilai, who had been tipped to join the politburo standing committee at the forthcoming reshuffle. The leadership changeover will see seven of the standing committee's nine members retire.
The fact that Mr Zhou is set to retire from the standing committee later this year makes it unlikely he would be removed, Mr Bo added.
A source "with close ties to China's security apparatus", quoted by the Financial Times newspaper, said Mr Zhou had been ordered not to appear in public or take part in high-level meetings.
He was, however, seen on state television on Friday evening, quelling some of the speculation that he might have been removed from his position.
Bo Xilai, a popular but controversial figure, was removed as party chief for the populous south-west municipality of Chongqing earlier this month after a scandal involving one of his closest aides.
The charismatic 62-year-old Mr Bo attracted worldwide attention for his uncompromising crackdown on organised crime and a campaign of Communist Party nostalgia that saw him promote the singing of "red songs".
However, when his police chief Wang Lijun fled to a US consulate in an apparent bid for asylum after being shunted into a less prominent job, there was speculation over Mr Bo's future and he was later stripped of his Chongqing post at the National People's Congress.
Since Mr Bo's sacking, reports have indicated he fell out with Mr Wang over a corruption probe into his wife.
Commentators say that at the most senior level there is a broad division between conservatives such as Bo Xilai, seen as leftist and suspicious of economic reforms that could reduce the power of the main state-owned enterprises, and liberals, who favour such reforms.
Mr Zhou is regarded as a close ally of Mr Bo and at the recent National People's Congress made visits to the Chongqing delegation that Mr Bo headed before he was ousted.
"There are two lines of development. They're struggling with each other and, with the downfall of Bo Xilai, it strengthens the liberal line," said Chan Chepo, an assistant professor of political science at the Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
However, he too said it was unlikely Mr Bo's fall from grace would lead to the downfall of others.
"I do not believe this factional struggle will continue," he said, adding he also thought Mr Zhou has probably retained his position, even if there had been a difference of opinion among China's top leaders over how to deal with Bo Xilai.
Whatever the behind-the-scenes struggles taking place, the fact that China's top leadership is heavily secretive has fuelled rumours.
China's censors have tried to dampen much of the online chatter, banning mention of the key players on some of the country's most popular microblogging sites.