The 71-year-old is the most senior Chinese official to be investigated for decades.
The probe comes amid a wide ranging anti-corruption drive launched by president and party leader Xi Jinping.
Presenter: Tom Fayle
Speaker: Professor Kerry Brown, head of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Prof Brown is also the author of a new book on the workings of the Chinese elite 'The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China' pubished by I.B. Tauris.
BROWN: Well, Zhou Yongkang was previously for about 17 years in the petrol industry in China, a very senior business leader, then he became a political administrator. He was a provincial leader for a number of years and then in 2007, he became a member of what we call a Standing Committee of the Politburo, which is at that time the nine-strong sort of super, super, super Committee that ran China and he actually had a very powerful position. He was in charge of security and of internal security and surveillance and so he had a very, very, powerful security role.
FAYLE: So is it clear exactly what he's being investigated for?
BROWN: He is being investigated for incredible amounts of corruption, I mean billions have been associated with his name. But I think the key thing about him is that in 2012, during the fall of another political politician, Bo Xilai. Zhou Yongkang was the only person in that time in the top leadership who showed support for Bo and therefore showed disloyalty towards the current leaders. And so he's in a sense being done for two things, one is enormous amounts of material corruption, but the second really is that he's also being done for disloyalty, political disloyalty, and that's the more deadly sin.
FAYLE: And what does this say about Chinese President Xi Jinping's position, his grip on power now?
BROWN: I think it shows that there is a lot of unity amongst this leadership. I mean we talk about Xi Jinping the strongman, like he's kind of a dictator, but I don't think that's the way that the system is run now. I mean it's got to be based on consensus, there's a fear of having strong man politics, because that happened in the past under Mao Zedong and it wasn't a very happy memory for most people in China. And so, I think this shows us that this political leadership are pretty unified, and if they see someone just building their own political little networks, their own political little fiefdom, which is what Zhou Yongkang is accused of doing, then they have to take him down, because that is deep, deep disloyalty.
FAYLE: And when similar investigations have been announced like this in the past, how has it ended up for the accused?
BROWN: Usually it's been a suspended death sentence and life imprisonment basically. But in fact, politically for you and your allies, so really this is. I mean Zhou Yongkang is in his 70s, so he's politically retired, but the most important thing for him is the people around him, the people he's been looking after until now, so a discrete little network or fiefdom really. And for them, it's the political sort of death knell and they won't have, some of them are quite young, they won't have futures, they will really be the ones that suffer and so in a sense, it's a kind of double death sentence. I mean for him he will never have any influence again, but for the people round him, it's also the end for them too.
FAYLE: And, how is the announcement of this investigation into Zhou Yongkang likely to go down among ordinary Chinese?
BROWN: Well, Zhou Yongkang was not a popular figure. I mean if you're in charge of security in China, then you're in charge of a lot of unpleasant people. So you're basically the person who is involved in putting down unrest, you're the person who's involved in digging out kind of dissidents, you're the person who's smashing the head over kind of activists. So it's not a popular job and I think what it will mean for Xi Jinping basically is that there will probably be some popular support for this. It will mean that people will think wow, this guy has actually really gone for someone really big, this has never happened since 1949, a sort of former senior leader at this level to be actually done for corruption. I mean it's an investigation at the moment, but it means that it will be eventually a formal indictment. So this is a really, really, a big precedent and I think for people in the street in China. I mean they will think, wow, OK, so this proves that they do sometimes go for their own. That's a really kind of big new move.
FAYLE: And finally, what about the argument that it's all very well going after these corrupt or allegedly corrupt individuals, but what about dealing with the institutional problem of an economic and political system that breeds such corruption?
BROWN: Well, that's the sort of big elephant in the corner of the room. I mean you can take out different kinds of networks, but the systemic problem is the same, which is that the Communist Party of China is not beholden to anyone, the rule of law doesn't apply to it, the courts are all appointed, the judges by the Communist Party and so at the end of the day, the systemic problem is completely unchanged. This is a political move. It's not really about embedding the actual structures and institutions that would stop corruption. This is a very, very political, because it's basically Xi Jinping and the current leaders around him removing someone who was politically disloyal, who was politically unreliable and who they regarded as their political enemy.