The ruling Chinese Communist Party is widening its anti-graft campaign to extend beyond the allies of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, although there are no signs that the campaign, launched by President Xi Jinping, will strengthen the rule of law in the country, analysts said.
The party on Monday expelled three top Zhou allies and a retired general over graft, in the latest sign that party investigators are keeping up the pressure on the former Politburo standing committee member.
Former vice minister for public security Li Dongsheng and former state assets watchdog chief Jiang Jiemin were stripped of party membership, according to the party's anti-graft agency, the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection (CCDI).
Former assistant Wang Yongchun, who worked under Zhou at the Daqing oilfield, as well as the former number two at the Central Military Commission, Xu Caihou, were also expelled, official media reported.
Meanwhile, China has dismissed Guangzhou party chief Wan Qingliang from his post pending a graft investigation, Xinhua news agency reported.
Wan is being probed for "serious violations of discipline," a term which is usually a euphemism for corruption.
"Wan Qingliang was dismissed from his post," Xinhua quoted the party's secretive Organization Department as saying.
The post of Guangzhou party secretary has typically been seen as a high-profile job with the potential to lead to national-level office.
Wan held vice-ministerial rank and is one of 171 alternate members of the 205-strong party Central Committee.
"One possibility is that we are seeing the second wave of the anti-graft campaign," Willy Lam, a China politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told RFA.
"[It is possible that] the CCDI is moving away from the Zhou Yongkang gang and the energy sector to hit other enemies or potential enemies of Xi and [CCDI chief] Wang Qishan," Lam said in comments emailed to RFA.
Liu Kaiming, who directs the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern city of Shenzhen, agreed that the party seems to be widening the campaign.
"Guangzhou has a very important position in the country because of its economic performance and its population," Liu said.
"We can say that the anti-corruption campaign is being stepped up."
President Xi has launched a nationwide anti-graft crackdown, targeting high-ranking "tigers" and low-ranking "flies," since coming to power in November 2012.
But the party regards any popular involvement in the anti-corruption campaign as highly sensitive and potentially threatening, conducting its investigations in secret and jailing citizen activists who focus too closely on graft.
Liu said the party needs to tackle endemic and systemic corruption in local governments and major state-owned industries.
"It's not going to solve the problem of systemic corruption if they just rely on arresting a few tigers," he said.
Protecting the elite
Analysts said the motivation behind Xi's campaign has more to do with the president's desire to protect the interests of the powerful elite of which he is a part than with any genuine desire for reform.
"The most disturbing thing now is that Xi is using anti-corruption as a weapon," Lam said. "The campaign is not based on the rule of law."
Columbia University Chinese Exchange Scholar and constitutional politics expert Zhang Boshu said the campaign could make little headway as long as the government continues to jail anti-graft activists and harass those who lodge complaints against officials.
"As this elitist form of capitalism has developed over the past 30 years, corruption has become deep-rooted and endemic," Zhang said.
"But [Xi's] motivation in fighting corruption is very clear; it has nothing to do with constitutional politics or democracy," Zhang said.
"This anti-constitutional thinking has a lot in common with the conservatives at the Manchu court, who wanted to maintain an authoritarian system at the tail end of the Qing Dynasty [1644-1911]," he said.
China's English-language tabloid Global Times newspaper called in an editorial on Monday for people to "keep faith" with the anti-graft campaign, however.
The growth of official corruption "doesn't mean the country's system is facing a major crisis," the paper said, although it said the investigation into Wan Qingliang "further intensified people's concerns about the degeneration of China's government officials."
"China's national pathway to prosperity and the fundamental political system remain firmly established, and the Chinese economic momentum still continues," the paper said.
Former top party official Bao Tong warned in a commentary earlier this month that democracy is essential to tackling graft.
"Corruption in China is clearly one of the negative side-effects of a one-party dictatorship," Bao wrote from his Beijing home, where he has been under house arrest since serving a seven-year jail term in the wake of the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement.
"If corruption is deemed to be the internal and secret affair of the party, in which citizens are forbidden to participate, and if those who try to supervise the government are persecuted and suppressed, and if all checks and balances on power are refused and laws flouted: how can such a struggle solve the systemic problem of corruption in China?" Bao wrote.
Anti-graft campaigner and New Citizens' Movement founder Xu Zhiyong was handed a four-year jail term in January on public order charges after staging a street protest calling for greater transparency from the country's richest and most powerful people.
Dozens of people linked in some way to the anti-graft group have been detained over the past year, according to Amnesty International, while the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said that a total of seven activists linked to the movement have now been handed formal jail terms.
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.