As a court in the central province of Henan handed a suspended death sentence to a former provincial chief, rights activists warned that President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign is unlikely to succeed in its aim of eradicating corruption under the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Former Yunnan provincial party secretary Bai Enpei, 70, was handed the sentence by the Anyang Intermediate People's Court on Sunday after being found guilty of amassing 247 million yuan (U.S.$37 million) in assets and other abuses of official power.
The death sentence was suspended for two years after Bai pleaded guilty to the crimes and expressed remorse for his actions, and because the authorities were able to recover all of the money, the court said in a statement.
Suspended death sentences in China are usually commuted to life jail terms after two years of good behavior.
However, no further commutation or parole will be permitted, the court said.
"The amount of bribes Bai Enpei accepted was huge, the details of his crimes extremely serious, and their social impact especially pernicious," the Anyang city intermediate court in the central province of Henan said on its social media account after sentencing Bai.
But the case, however high profile, isn't necessarily a sign that Xi's anti-graft campaign targeting high-level "tigers" and low-ranking "flies" is working, analysts said.
China completely lacks independent judiciary or free media to safeguard the process, meaning that Xi's campaign is largely driven by political factors, they said.
Bai was close to disgraced Zhou
According to U.S.-based rights activist Liu Qing, Bai was a close ally of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, who was jailed for life in June 2015 for corruption and disclosure of state secrets.
"Bai Enpei was sentenced because he and Zhou Yongkang are closely linked, belonging to the same network of vested interests, and because Zhou is a political opponent of Xi Jinping," Liu said.
"Currently, the party anti-corruption drive is really just a tool to exclude different political opinions, as opposed to a genuine attempt to rid the system of corruption," he said.
But he said any reform to the system looked unlikely.
"Xi Jinping ... is not willing to change the political system to fight corruption, because he wants to keep the Communist Party in power to protect vested interests," Liu said.
Zhou was the highest-ranking party member, and the first former member of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee to be targeted by Xi.
He once headed the powerful Politics and Law Commission which governs law enforcement, including the state security police, and was instrumental in developing a heavy-handed nationwide "stability maintenance" security regime.
The Anyang court said Bai had accepted bribes in relation to lucrative property development and mining projects, as well as political promotions.
'No end to official resistance'
Another key Zhou ally, former work safety czar Yang Dongliang, was charged with corruption after being fired in the wake of the massive Tianjin chemical warehouse explosions last August, the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), said in a separate statement.
It said it former Hebei provincial party chief Zhou Benshun also faces corruption charges.
The graft-busting agency began investigating Bai, who had risen steadily through the party ranks under Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, in 2015.
Political analysts say that resistance to Xi's anti-corruption campaign is growing in party ranks, as the president takes aim at his political opponents a year ahead of the 19th Party Congress in Beijing.
"Xi Jinping's problem is this: as long as he insists on the anti-corruption campaign, there will be no end to official resistance to it," political writer Hu Shaojiang said in a recent commentary broadcast on RFA's Cantonese Service.
According to Hu Shaojiang, a rapid withdrawal from his commitment to fight corruption, which is popular with the public, would leave the president struggling to fill a power vacuum opened up by his attacks on rival factions.
"And if he loses that public support, he is very likely to meet the fate of a failed faction within the party that is suddenly wiped out in a frenzy [by rival factions]," he said.
"And Xi's internal political opponents could create opportunities to change the status quo," he concluded in a later commentary.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.