Authorities in China's troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang have expelled the former editor of an official regional newspaper for failing to toe the line set down by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, his former paper reported on Monday.
Zhao Xinwei, 58, former editor-in-chief of party's regional Xinjiang Daily newspaper, now faces prosecution after being investigated for "serious violations of discipline," the paper said.
While the phrase usually refers to corruption, there are signs that Zhao has also fallen foul of new party rules forbidding members and officials to say anything that isn't in accordance with policy as laid down by the leadership in Beijing.
Zhao is accused of "improper discussion" of party policies in Xinjiang and of making "public comments opposing" central government policy in the region, which has seen a string of violent incidents in recent years which critics say are the result of oppressive policies targeting the region's mostly Muslim Uyghur group.
"[His] words and deeds were not in line with the center or regional party committee," the paper said, citing infringements over issues of principle such as opposition to "separatism," "violent terrorism," and "religious extremism."
Zhao is also accused of abusing his position, squandering public funds, taking gifts, and embezzling money, the report said.
He will likely face prosecution after his case is "handed over to judicial authorities," it said.
Zhao, a Han Chinese from the northern province of Shanxi, took up his post at the Xinjiang Daily in January 2011 and also chaired its Communist Party committee.
He had previously served as propaganda chief in the Silk Road city of Kashgar in the south of the region.
One of Zhao's subordinates, surnamed Fan, said Zhao had been replaced by an editor flown out from Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily in Beijing.
"All that is being made public at this time is [Zhao's] ideological orientation, that problems resulted from his haphazard misreading of central government documents, which caused instability in Xinjiang," she said.
"Those are the charges against him."
Corruption not the point
Fan said the news of Zhao's disgrace had been sent out as a syndicated text for media outlets across China to use.
But she added: "In actual fact, this so-called misinterpretation is meaningless. He published stuff that a party newspaper isn't supposed to publish; it's as simple as that."
She said the corruption investigation wasn't the main driver of Fan's fall. "No one is talking about that," she said.
But she declined to comment on the validity of the charges.
"I don't know him very well ... so it's hard for me to comment on him as a person," she said.
An employee who answered the phone at the Xinjiang Daily also declined to comment.
"We don't know. We read it in the newspaper too," the employee said. "Who would tell us such a thing? You know as much as we do."
Ousted under new rules
A highly-placed Chinese media source said Zhao is the first high-profile party member to be ousted under the new rules.
"There's a lot of interest, and everyone wants to know exactly what the offending content was," the source said.
"But this is very sensitive, dealing with Xinjiang, and so there is very limited official information ... We can never write about it."
"This is the first case of a party official [being sanctioned for] going off message; the first time I've heard of such a thing," the source said. "I have asked around, but nobody's talking."
Last week, the Communist Party issued a code of conduct for its 60-some million members in a bid to clamp down on internal factions and prevent its officials from going off-message in public.
The rules list eight moral and ethical principles that party members are expected to live by.
Featured on the list of banned behaviors are "forming party cliques," "contravening central party policy," and "using political power to seek profits for family members and staff."
They are aimed at preventing extravagant wining, dining, and golf, as well as "improper sexual relations" with anyone, as well as the formation of party cliques and factions that go against the leadership's political line, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Divisions now common
But according to Guangzhou-based political commentator Ye Du, prosecuting officials for holding independent views is likely to be self-defeating in the long term.
"We have had more than a decade of the Internet and the awakening it brings, and it is very common to see internal divisions within party ranks now," Ye said.
"Even within the party elite with their vested interests—and the whole party has vested interests-—we can see various differences," he said. "How are they going to manage to maintain ideological unity?"
"Even if they make the boundaries clearer, this will still be a major challenge, one that will get progressively more challenging."
Anhui-based dissident Shen Liangqing said the party can't afford the slightest hint of dissent on the sensitive topic of Xinjiang.
"Things are likely to get worse and worse in this respect, because this whole going off message campaign could explode," Shen said. "Tensions in Xinjiang are getting worse and worse, and they have no appropriate way of resolving them; they have to rely on suppression."
"Actually the people targeted may have very moderate views, perhaps slightly different opinions about how to deal with the problem," he said.
"If they require everyone to toe the party line, then Uyghurs will only have revolt left as a way of expressing themselves."
Tigers and flies
Since taking power in 2012, Chinese president Xi Jinping has launched an ongoing anti-corruption campaign targeting high-ranking "tigers" along with low-ranking "flies."
The party's internal investigative arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), generally begins any probe into alleged wrongdoing by officials behind closed doors.
Rights lawyers have slammed the CCDI system as unaccountable and lacking in legal representation for those accused, as well as resorting to torture and other abuses to elicit forced confessions.
And political commentators have said the anti-corruption campaign is highly selective, with members of factions other than Xi's most likely to be targeted.
Reported by Ka Pa and Dai Weisen for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.