China's official media on Tuesday hinted that former security czar Zhou Yongkang is under investigation for corruption.
Speculation has been mounting for months that the authorities may be getting ready to charge Zhou, 71, a former member of the party's elite Politburo Standing Committee, with abuse of power.
A corruption investigation begun by the ruling Chinese Communist Party last year has widened to include Zhou's family and powerful political allies and business connections in the country's energy sector, reports indicate.
The English-language online edition of the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the party, referred for the first time to businessman Zhou Bin—currently under investigation by the party's disciplinary agency—as "Zhou's eldest son," repeating the comment on Tuesday in its English-language print edition.
The paper, which is published by party mouthpiece the People's Daily, added in a commentary article: "It seems that the investigation into Zhou hasn't concluded yet."
Zhou, former political mentor to jailed former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, stepped down from his post as Politburo standing committee member and Commission chief in November 2012, where he wielded huge power, political analysts say. His post has since been downgraded to report to the committee.
There have been other recent hints that Zhou, 71, will become the most senior Chinese politician to be ensnared in a graft scandal in the history of Communist Party rule.
The spokesman for China's parliamentary advisory body told reporters on Sunday that the government's anti-graft campaign, launched last year by president Xi Jinping, wouldn't shy away from investigating "leading officials."
"We are doing this to demonstrate to the whole party and the whole society that when we see that anyone violates law and party discipline they will be investigated and dealt with severely, and no matter whom they are or what their position is, we mean it," Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) spokesman Lu Xinhua told a news briefing.
"I'm sure you understand," he added, in a comment that quickly became an online catchphrase, and which has been widely interpreted as referring to Zhou Yongkang.
Beijing's next move
Since taking power, Xi has vowed to take down high-ranking "tigers" and lower-level "flies" in his anti-corruption campaign.
But the government may fear that putting Zhou on trial will risk too much embarrassing information about the inner workings of China's power elite, threatening its grip on power.
Beijing-based veteran journalist Gao Yu said the Global Times article was significant for those trying to gauge Beijing's next move.
"Now, at the very least, Zhou Yongkang has been named in public," Gao said. "And that naming took place in the official media."
She said some form of conclusion would be necessary from the party's central commission for discipline inspection after so many probes in Zhou's political network.
"At the very least, the central commission for discipline inspection must come to a conclusion," she said.
"I'm sure that they will make an announcement, but it's hard to say when that will be," Gao added.
Watching the NPC
Cai Yongmei, editor of the Hong Kong-based political magazine Kaifang, said all eyes were on the gathering of the political elite at the annual session of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which opens Wednesday.
"I'm sure we will see [retired former president] Jiang Zemin and all those people in public, and if Zhou Yongkang doesn't appear, [the foreign media] will definitely ask questions about it," Cai said.
"I think they will want to put things off for a while yet, but they won't be able to do that at the NPC, because they have no way to have Zhou Yongkang appear in public," she said.
"So it's starting to come out now."
Cai said she expected an announcement in the near future, but not until after the NPC.
"Any news about Zhou Yongkang will trump any news that comes out of the NPC, and they won't want to do that," she said.
Last week, a key ally of Zhou's resigned from his NPC seat, paving the way for a prosecution.
Li Dongsheng, a former vice-minister for public security, is already under investigation by the Communist Party's disciplinary body for "suspected serious law and discipline violations."
China's parliament has accepted Li's resignation as a member of parliament for the southwestern province of Sichuan, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
The move is significant because it removes immunity from prosecution extended to NPC delegates, who rarely challenge the party line.
Suspects in the ongoing probe come from a tangled and often informal network of power and influence headed by Zhou, including the state-run petroleum industry, Sichuan provincial government, the nationwide Communist Party political and legal affairs committees, as well as land and resources bureau and propaganda officials, sources say.
Four of Zhou's former political secretaries have been detained for investigation to date.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.