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World News

China oilman turned top cop wins place in elite

BEIJING (Reuters) - From his days in the thick of China’s oil industry, the man who rose to become the country’s top policeman appeared always marked out for leadership.

Now, Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang is likely to take over the law and order portfolio after being promoted to the elite Politburo Standing Committee on Monday.

Zhou, 64, will face the task of maintaining stability in the restive countryside and ensuring security for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. At the Public Security Ministry, he was of course no stranger to law and order issues.

Zhou made waves early on, taking the unprecedented step of sacking hundreds of police to stamp out a drinking culture, but has since endeared himself to the force by creating a more professional, more powerful body.

“On the one hand he built up the prestige of the police and produced a much more disciplined police force,” said Fu Hualing, law professor at Hong Kong University.

“But at the same time, it’s a much more powerful police force, so he’s not really liked by the courts and procuratorate.”

Zhou also has been involved in efforts to combat police abuse and extended detentions without charge, but analysts say such moves do not necessarily indicate the mind of a reformer.

“The ultimate goal is really to increase the sense of legitimacy that the police have among the public, and to reinforce their importance as the maintainers of public order and the protectors of the one-party state,” said Joshua Rosenzweig at the rights group Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco.

Still, from his days in the oil industry, Zhou was seen as open-minded and competent.

Born in Jiangsu province near Shanghai, he joined the Party while still a student at the Beijing Petroleum Institute. He rose through the oil sector to become general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s largest oil and gas producer, in the mid-1990s.

“He was viewed by people in the oil industry as a person who was very capable and very quick in decision-making,” said an industry analyst, who asked not to be named.

Zhou also was a strong supporter of moves under Deng Xiaoping to open the offshore oil industry to international players in the 1990s and the East China Sea to international exploration.

STABILITY FIRST

It was in the oil industry that Zhou developed a relationship with Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, formerly ranked fifth in the Party hierarchy. Zeng has stepped down from the Standing Committee, but Zhou is seen as one of his proteges.

“Zhou Yongkang would not be where he is had it not been for Zeng Qinghong,” said a source with ties to the leadership.

After years in the oil industry and related ministries, Zhou went on to run the huge southwestern province of Sichuan, before being named to the Public Security job in 2002.

Analysts say they do not expect any major shift in policy from Zhou’s predecessor, Luo Gan, who retired this week, at a time when Party policy is guided above all else by the need for stability.

“Mass incidents” -- China’s euphemism for public protests -- have swelled into the thousands annually, fuelled by frustration at a yawning wealth gap and official corruption, despite the fact that the Party and cracks down hard on dissent.

Zhou has cautioned that China’s development requires order, saying preserving stability was its “number one duty”.

As security chief, Zhou also would become the final arbiter of key legal reforms under consideration, including whether or not to scrap the system of “re-education through labour”.

The system empowers police to sentence petty criminals without going through the courts. Critics say it undermines the rule of law and can be used to target political prisoners.

Police see the policy as key to their ability to do their job. But analysts say that in his new role, Zhou will have to listen to a wider audience and develop a relationship with the courts and procuratorate.

“How far is the central leadership going to allow these reforms to go?” asked Rosenzweig. “I think a lot of that will be up to him.”

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