As the ruling Chinese Communist Party gears up for its fifth plenary session since President Xi Jinping came to power, Xi is facing a huge political backlash over his ongoing anti-corruption campaign, analysts said on Monday.
The fifth plenum of the party's central committee is scheduled to run from Tuesday to Thursday in Beijing, and comes amid major personnel changes in the highest echelons of China's leadership.
More than half of the central committee's members have been fired or moved to different posts in the run-up to the plenum, official media reported.
"The large-scale reshuffle is extremely rare in the history of the CPC [and is] a result ... of the anti-graft campaign, which has been of unprecedented severity," the Global Times, which is run by party mouthpiece the People's Daily, said in a political analysis.
According to the Beijing Daily newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal branch of the party, 104 of a total of 205 central committee members have been "promoted, demoted or expelled from their positions since 2012."
Of those, 16 were transferred to less important posts, and seven were removed, it said.
The Global Times quoted Party School professor Zhang Xixian as saying that the moves reflect Xi's ongoing focus on discipline within the party, which includes not just the anti-corruption campaign, but tighter regulation of members' activities and publicly expressed opinions.
"The country is laying the foundation to comprehensively strengthen party discipline between 2012 and 2017," Zhang told the paper.
While Xi's anti-corruption campaign has netted seven central committee members and more than 100 officials at ministry level or above since he took power in November 2012, there is a growing backlash among the party's 60-some million members, analysts said.
Recently reported comments by party graft-buster Xu Aisheng suggest a host of unforeseen consequences from the corruption campaign, which critics say is highly selective, operating more like a political campaign targeting Xi's political rivals, according to online commentator Xiucai Jianghu.
"There are very deep waters around the anti-corruption campaign," he said. "I think the anti-corruption campaign is already beginning to attack itself, much like the accusations of witchcraft during the Han dynasty [206 BC-220 AD]."
"It's being used to attack political rivals by accusing them of corruption, and removing them from their posts," Xiucai Jianghu said. "Corruption is endemic within the Communist Party, so this is just a tactic."
The anti-corruption campaign is generally waged behind closed doors, with party investigators handing a case over to the judicial authorities only when they have collected evidence and decided that a suspect is guilty enough to denounce in public and expel from the party.
Veteran Hebei journalist Zhu Xinxin said the government had been hoping to gloss over resistance to the campaign from within party ranks.
"The whole reason why the government didn't want ... details made public is that it was afraid the party's [intended] shining and righteous image would be damaged," Zhu said.
"Now that details of internal political struggles have emerged ... they are showing that there is a big hole in the party's shiny image."
Range of complaints
As China's leaders prepared to meet in session on Tuesday, petitioners gathered in the capital with a range of complaints against the government, in a bid to have their grievances heard.
However, the authorities have boosted the level of manpower aimed at detaining those who complain, before escorting them back under guard to their hometown, petitioners said.
"There is a particularly harsh crackdown [this year], with interceptors outnumbering petitioners at all of the main complaints departments," Jiangsu petitioner Tang Shuxiu said on Monday.
"They are just waiting there for petitioners to show up, and then they take them away," Tang said. "I arrived in Beijing today, along with my disabled brother, and I went to the Disabled Federation, where there weren't many people."
"But there were large crowds of people in long lines at the other complaints offices."
Shanghai petitioner Xu Peiling said she had been detained and taken to an unofficial detention center at Majialou, on the outskirts of Beijing, on Monday.
"There are a lot [of police] around, with police vehicles at every intersection all the way out to Majialou, and a lot of interceptors too," Xu said, in a reference to specially hired security personnel who escort petitioners home from other cities, particularly Beijing. "The police were very rough, and they were yelling rather than talking to us."
"I will probably get taken home tomorrow, and I heard that they are detaining people after they get them home," she said.
Xu said there were as many as 1,000 petitioners waiting inside the police station where she was held before boarding a bus to Majialou.
"There's no way to count how many people there are [here in Beijing]," she said. "There are people here from all over China, and they are being taken away very fast, pretty soon after they get here."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.