As the ruling Chinese Communist Party gears up for a crucial, five-yearly congress next month, President Xi Jinping is taking far-reaching steps to ensure that no critical voices are raised against him, analysts said.
A popular chat show on the Hong Kong-based satellite station Phoenix TV, known for its pro-Beijing stance, was pulled off air this week, less than a month before the 19th Party Congress on Oct. 18, with scant explanation.
"Behind the Headlines" is off air temporarily, due to "adjustments to network programming," Phoenix said via its official account on Chinese social media, while searches for the show's title were blocked on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
Journalism professor To Yiu-ming, of Hong Kong's Baptist University, said the move appears to be part of an overall clampdown on any media that isn't directly produced under the aegis of the ruling party.
"There really is little room for public speech now, if they are even going after Phoenix," To said. "From the point of view of the Chinese government, Phoenix is pretty much like [Communist Party-backed newspaper] the Wen Wei Po; the acceptable face of the Hong Kong media."
"From Hong Kong's point of view, it is the more relaxed face of the mainland Chinese media," he said.
To said Xi's administration is busy stamping out even the slightest traces of dissent ahead of the party congress.
"They aren't messing about; they want everyone present and correct, and to minimize noise," he said. "Perhaps we will see dissenting voices within party ranks being amplified in the overseas media instead."
Former ideologue detained
In the southwestern Chinese province, a former party ideologue is being held under criminal detention following a recent call for direct elections to choose the next generation of Chinese leaders.
Zi Su was taken away from his home in Sichuan's provincial capital Chengdu on April 28 after he posted an open letter online calling on Xi to step down as head of the party in favor of Hu Deping, son of late ousted premier Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen Square democracy movement.
"Xi Jinping was elected general secretary ... in 2012 and has served for five years," Zi's letter said. "His achievements ... have been to punish a number of corrupt officials, but his faults have been to imitate [late supreme leader] Mao Zedong with a personality cult around him and a focus on centralization of power."
The letter also called for "direct elections" to choose the next head of the Communist Party.
The outspoken professor had previously told RFA as the party celebrated its 95th birthday on July 1, 2016, that Xi was using "controls and political struggle of the kind used by Mao Zedong."
Zi's defense attorney Li Guisheng said his client had been detained for breaching the terms of a previous bail.
Party boss investigated
In July, President Xi Jinping ordered an investigation into Sun Zhengcai, party boss of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, former political fiefdom of Bo Xilai, who is currently serving a life sentence for corruption and abuse of power.
Like his doomed predecessor, Sun was a charismatic politician and Politburo member widely tipped for entry into the highest echelons of the party leadership at the next reshuffle of top jobs at the congress, which opens in Beijing on Oct. 18.
Many under his political patronage, or implicated in the investigation into his activities were also held, leaving a significant gap in the city's elite, according to political commentator and former Xinhua news agency reporter Jiang Weiping, who fled to Canada after being accused of endangering national security.
"In a few days, Chongqing will have to choose its delegates to the 19th Party Congress, but the number of gaps requiring by-elections is unprecedented," Jiang wrote in a recent commentary for RFA's Mandarin Service.
"In the past year, large numbers of the high-ranking officials in a single city have been detained," he said. "This is really unusual, and the impact will be ... far-reaching."
Jiang said Xi's anticorruption campaign, waged since he took power in 2012, can only be selective, because of the endemic nature of graft in China's body politic.
"Everyone is tainted," Jiang wrote. "There is no doubt that what we have here is the rule of man, not the rule of law,"
"Under the current system, ordinary people have no choice, and it matters little which particular ideology politicians are motivated by; what is most important are the results, whether or not they are able to promote social progress," he wrote.
"If there are no political reforms and no judicial independence, then it hardly matters who is reshuffled, or who wins the power struggles; China won't progress, and its people will have no way of averting disaster," he wrote.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap and Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.