For months, as his relatives and former underlings were caught up in the anti-graft dragnet one after another, the fate of Zhou Yongkang was at the center of a guessing game.
As the rampant wrongdoings of those around him were brought into the daylight, people were waiting with eager anticipation to see whether or not Zhou himself would ultimately prove to be involved.
After all, before him, no one at the very core of the national leadership, in the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, had been the official subject of disciplinary action. Whether or not the anti-corruption probes would stop short of touching Zhou was viewed as a touchstone of President Xi Jinping's vow to take on the "tigers" as well as the "flies".
Until late on Tuesday, many doubted Xi and his colleagues' readiness to take such a politically risky step.
One of the foremost reasons for such doubts was the suspicion that revealing abuse at the very top risks undermining public confidence in the CPC and the system. That Xi and his colleagues have finally chosen not to exempt Zhou from disciplinary scrutiny speaks volumes about the present leaders' loyalty to their pledge of leaving no safe haven for abusers of power.
Besides convincing the doubters, Zhou's fate will send shudders down the spines of other abusers who may be entertaining the illusion that their high positions and retirement will protect them.
Zhou's umbrella of protection served many well. As he climbed up the rungs of power from the oil sector to be leader of Sichuan province, and to central government ministries and the very top of national power, his influence has covered outrageous abuses of public resources. Investigations of Zhou's family and political allies have exposed an extensive empire of wrongdoing fed on his political assets.
We can expect more details of Zhou's "serious violations" as the probes proceed, along with punishment commensurate with his liabilities.
But there is a lot more to such a sensational case. The long trail of misconduct paralleling Zhou's career path, for one, should be a subject for serious soul-searching throughout the CPC.
Widespread corruption inside the Party has raised serious questions about the efficacy of its self-regulation. While persistent housecleaning is conducive to the CPC's image and legitimacy, well-thought-out mechanisms are a more reliable solution, and will do the job much better.
For the general public at this point, however, the logical question is: Who will be the next?
Nothing, perhaps, can better assure the public of a triumph over corruption than a restructured institution to place constant checks on all officials.