The expulsion and criminal investigation of once-rising political star Sun Zhengcai from the ruling Chinese Communist Party was sparked by a plot to overthrow President Xi Jinping, a senior official has said.
Sun, 54, former party secretary of the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, had plotted to seize power from the current leadership, the chairman of China's securities regulator Liu Shiyu told a meeting of top finance officials during the 19th party congress.
Sun and other senior figures were "great not just in venality and corruption but in conspiring openly to usurp party leadership," Liu said.
He also mentioned former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, his political mentor and former minister for state security Zhou Yongkang, and former general Guo Boxiong, all of whom are currently serving life prison terms for corruption and other forms of misconduct.
Liu credited an anti-corruption campaign waged by Xi since the last party congress in 2012 with foiling the coup plot, which had long been rumored in political and media circles in China.
"We eliminated this huge hidden danger to the party and the nation," Liu said. "The party leadership with Xi Jinping as its core have during this five years saved the party, saved the military and saved the nation, and looking at it globally, also saved socialism."
The Hong Kong news portal HK01 reported that the government had specifically targeted Sun, Bo, Zhou, Guo, Ling Jihua and former general Xu Caihou, taking Liu's comments to mean that they were all co-conspirators in the coup plot. Xu died in 2015.
The allegations are the first time in 40 years that the ruling party has publicly declared officials of Politburo rank and higher of plotting to seize power, the article said.
Even a 1981 Central Committee resolution regarding the Gang of Four stopped short of using the wording employed by Liu Shiyu on Thursday, and it hasn't been heard in official statements since -- until now.
The resolution was a statement on the 1976 investigation into Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing, the "Gang of Four," an alleged political plot that has seldom been mentioned in public since late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping kicked off 30 years of economic reform in the 1980s, it said.
"The wording they are now using to describe the attempt [by Zhou, Bo and the others] to grab power from the party leadership is very close to the language of a plot to stage a political coup," Chinese historian and columnist Hong Zhenkuai said in a recent interview with RFA.
"But this wasn't formally stated as an accusation in any of the evidence made publicly available during the trials of Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua or any of the others," he added.
Hong said it is important to remember that nobody in China without access to the highest echelons of leadership can know whether any such plots were a reality, or merely the result of a huge power struggle behind the scenes.
"The general public has no idea what the truth is," Hong said. "We will have to wait for history to reveal the contents of secret trials at some time in the future before we can make our minds up about that."
"It's very hard to say how they view the use of such language behind the scenes, and whether this is the same as their public stance."
Evenly matched power struggle?
A Beijing-based academic who declined to be named said Liu was highly unlikely to be making such pronouncements without approval from the highest level.
"Usurping party leadership is an indicator that there has been a fairly evenly matched power struggle in the party of a white-hot intensity," the academic said, suggesting that the wording can only be read as a form of code.
"It made no sense to call Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four, who were part of the Communist Party, usurpers of its power," the academic said. "There is no doubt that this was just a label that was used to target them."
"The situation today appears to have reached a stalemate, and we will have to watch the 19th Party Congress carefully to see what happens next."
Xi on Wednesday opened the five-yearly party congress with a marathon speech setting out his ideological road map to make China a superpower, and introducing his own ideological "guide to action."
Flanked by party elders and apparently on track to consolidate his political power as a "core leader" of the party, Xi said his "Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era," would propel his country into a leading position on the world stage.
But there are still question marks over whether the president will succeed in getting his own name on his ideological brand, in the form of a reference to Xi Jinping Thought in the party's constitution.
A Chinese political source told RFA that only late supreme leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have had their name linked to their political ideologies so far.
"Mao Zedong Thought was the first to be enshrined in the party constitution, and then Deng Xiaoping Thought was added later," the source said. "This is because Mao was seen as the founder of the People's Republic, while Deng was the architect of economic reforms."
"With his slogan about linking the past 30 years with the next, Xi Jinping has strengthened the regime, and quite successfully," the source said. "It is entirely possible that he will succeed in overturning the [political conventions] of the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras."
Xi's consolidation of power in his own hands, with the sidelining of the role of premier in recent years, has sparked predictions that he will move away from the model of collective power espoused by Jiang and Hu in the form of the Politburo standing committee.
Analysts have also speculated that he will override a two-term limit on holders of high office, paving the way for an indefinite one-man show.
Retired Anhui state prosecutor Shen Liangqing said high-ranking Chinese leaders have been consistent in their praise of the president's new brand of political thought, suggesting that his name may indeed make it into the founding document of the party.
"We're not just talking about one official, or provincial leaders and ministers [praising Xi's thought]; several incumbent members of the Politburo standing committee have praised it too," Shen said.
"For example, [parliamentary chief] Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng and a few others have voiced similar praises of Xi Jinping Thought; they are drumming up support for it."
"At the very least, the highest ranks of the leadership have reached a consensus ... which probably means that Xi Jinping will definitely be inscribed into the constitution."
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.