A pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong has launched a series of unprecedented attacks on ruling Chinese Communist Party officials in recent days, giving a rare glimpse of factional strife at the heart of the Chinese leadership, analysts told RFA.
The Sing Pao Daily News has run a series of articles since late August hitting out at high-ranking Chinese official Zhang Dejiang, who is tasked with responsibility for Hong Kong.
It has also run anonymous commentaries denouncing Hong Kong's chief executive Leung Chun-ying and Beijing’s powerful representative office in the city, the Central Liaison Office.
The articles have blamed a putative "Gang of Four" for huge 2014 pro-democracy protests in the former British colony, in what some analysts say is a thinly-veiled attack on the allies of former president Jiang Zemin in the higher echelons of the party.
The Sing Pao carried a commentary on its front page denouncing the Liaison Office's "cronyism" and accusing its head Zhang Xiaoming of colluding with Leung and others to destabilize Hong Kong by inciting talk of independence for the city.
The fact that the articles were published at all indicates very high-ranking support for their content, analysts said.
The paper has also accused Zhang Dejiang, a member of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee, of allowing Beijing's Central Liaison Office to meddle directly in Hong Kong's affairs.
Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under the terms of its 1997 handover agreement, but many in the city say that Beijing's interference is now being keenly felt, and that traditional freedoms of speech, publication and judicial independence may be at risk.
War of words
Veteran political commentator Willy Lam said the articles are part of a war of words linked to President Xi Jinping's consolidation of power at next year's 19th Party Congress.
"Preparations for the 19th Party Congress are already under way in Beijing, with only one more year to go," Lam told RFA.
"All of the different factions are marshaling their resources and jockeying for position," he said, adding that battle lines are also being drawn within Hong Kong's pro-Beijing camp ahead of elections for the city's next chief executive in March.
"The temperature is hotting up, and so we will see more personal attacks, whether it be from the Xi Jinping faction, the Jiang Zemin faction or the Youth League faction [linked to former president Hu Jintao]."
But he said the use of a series of newspaper articles to attack a high-ranking leader was unusual, and recalled the denunciations of the Mao era, and the political infighting the late 1960s and 1970s.
"I haven't seen such an attack within the space of a few weeks since the Cultural Revolution," Lam said.
"Hong Kong has turned into a political football used by opposing factions," Lam said, adding that the shrillness of the attacks on Zhang Dejiang, who as chairman of the National People's Congress standing committee is the third-highest ranking leader in China, is also very unusual.
But Joseph Cheng, former political science lecturer at Hong Kong's City University, said the articles could have more to do with the next election for the chief executive than factional squabbles in Beijing.
"Most of us don't have a proper grasp of the situation, but most of us are guessing that this has to do with the fact that the time to select the next lot of candidates for chief executive is drawing near," Cheng said.
Hand-picked by Beijing
Beijing will decide in the next couple of months on a slate of candidates to fight the next elections for Leung's job, with the voting carried out by a 1,200-strong election committee hand-picked by Beijing.
"Beijing's leadership will decide in the next couple of months whether they want Leung to stand again, and whether or not he has their support," Cheng said.
"There are all kinds of rumors about an investigation team now resident in the Central Liaison Office," he added. "It seems that there are all kinds of personnel issues being played out within the pro-China camp in Hong Kong."
But political commentator Poon Siu-to said the articles may not eventually result in any of their targets facing serious consequences.
"I don't think that we'll see any actual consequences," he said. "At most, we may see Zhang Dejiang ditch his support for Leung Chun-ying [in the chief executive elections.]"
"If anything concrete was going to happen, I think that they would already have made their move by now, especially when it comes to Leung Chun-ying."
"But I do think it will have a long-term effect on public opinion in Hong Kong, and affect the way people think of them in a bad way," Poon said.
Reported by Goh Fung and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.