Occasionally as a journalist in China you are caught off guard. The sentencing of Zhou Yongkang was a case in point.

Back in April, the media had been promised an "open trial". But in the end the government reverted to form, and Zhou was tried in secret on May 22.

There’s no doubt that there\'s a lot of tradition in the Communist Party of using the anti-corruption card as a potent weapon against your enemies

Willy Lam, professor

News of his sentence was released on June 11, just in time for the main news bulletin on state broadcaster CCTV at 7pm.

The man standing in the dock looked frail and old - a picture that was hard to square with his reputation as the country's once powerful and feared security tsar. The once suspiciously black hair was now totally white. Zhou's humiliation was complete.

He was not just any politician. He was the man who had files on anyone that matters in Chinese politics - including, presumably, President Xi Jinping who had Zhou in his crosshairs long before he was anointed president in November 2012.

Zhou was close to another high profile politician, Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party Chief of Chongqing, once tipped for top office. He was also sentenced to life imprisonment of corruption in 2013.

Anti-corruption drive

Zhou was by far the biggest scalp in Xi Jinping's much vaunted anti-corruption drive. If Xi can bring down a figure as mighty as Zhou then surely no one is immune from this drive.

Professor Willy Lam of the Centre for Chinese Studies, who has been writing about Chinese politics for more than 35 years, says even former presidents will be worried now.

"There’s actually a lot of speculation that he might go after a former president," says Professor Lam, author of a new book, "Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping".

The lingering question, though, is whether Zhou’s downfall was more to do with politics than corruption - an excuse to get rid of potential rivals.

"There’s no doubt that there's a lot of tradition in the Communist Party of using the anti-corruption card as a potent weapon against your enemies," says Lam.

And we have seen precedents going way back to Mao Zedong. And Zhou Yongkang is well known to have opposed the elevation of Xi Jinping to the position of General Secretary.

So that’s why there is no love lost between the two, and Xi Jinping also wants to set an example because Zhou Yongkang is the most senior official to have been prosecuted since the end of the Culture Revolution.

Source: Al Jazeera