The ruling Chinese Communist Party has expelled its party secretary at the Qinghai Daily News newspaper in the northwestern province of Qinghai for "disciplinary violations," the party's disciplinary arm announced on Wednesday.
Zhang Wei, the former party secretary at the newspaper, was found after a recent internal investigation to have "violated political discipline" and lied to the provincial party committee, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said in a statement.
"He opposed censorship and illegally kept secret party work documents in his possession," the CCDI said. "He also violated discipline in his personal life, carrying on a long-term, inappropriate relationship with another person while he was still married."
Zhang's case has now been transferred to police for criminal investigation, after party investigators found evidence of "large-scale bribe-taking," the statement said.
The CCDI described Zhang as a formerly loyal party member who had "lost touch with his ideals and convictions" since 18th party congress in 2012, when President Xi Jinping took power.
As President Xi Jinping embarks on a second, unlimited term in office following the annual National People's Congress (NPC) in March, he is strengthening the ruling party's hold on all forms of public expression.
Xi has also enlarged the party's powerful propaganda department to absorb all government agencies responsible for regulating the mass media, and exporting its ideology to the rest of the world via a new mega-broadcaster.
The Qinghai provincial party committee has expelled Zhang from the party and fired him from his job, the CCDI said.
"The case will now be passed to the prosecution, who will investigate and bring criminal charges," the statement said.
'Holding party documents'
Zhang Gang, a legal professional in the southern province of Guangdong, said the charge of "illegally holding party documents" was nonsensical.
"This is the first time [this charge] has appeared," Zhang Gang said.
"This notion of illegally holding party documents is fundamentally problematic, because there is no protection in Chinese law for party secrets, only secrets of the state and other administrative bodies."
"There are no laws governing party work documents; only party discipline, so it's meaningless to talk of it's illegality," he said.
A Sichuan internet user surnamed Zhu said she didn't trust the description of Zhang's "crimes," saying that it wouldn't be surprising for the head of a party newspaper to hold secret party documents.
"Everything the party says is like the stuff they used to have on the wall at school; everything is self-contradictory," Zhu said. "I am guessing that this is someone with a strong sense of justice, who didn't toe the party line."
"If you don't want to be tainted by the system, they will attack you," she said.
Zhang Gang said Zhang Wei is more likely being targeted for not being a keen supporter of President Xi, who recently began an unlimited term in office.
"They are totally unscrupulous in the methods they use to carry out such purges," he said. "Behind the firing and expulsion of ... Zhang Wei is likely a bid to purge dissenting opinions."
Zhang, 53, is a former teacher and researcher at the Qinghai Party School, and former editor-in-chief of party ideology journal "New Heights."
Zhang's ouster comes after a top party official dismantled the in-depth features department at a major newspaper in Beijing, where sweeping changes have prompted dozens of journalists to resign.
Four journalists have left the Beijing-based Legal Evening News since the in-depth section of the newspaper—which had won a reputation for cutting-edge investigative reporting and in-depth features on crime and social issues—was abolished earlier this month, according to various sources in the industry.
The paper now runs an operation that is much thinner on original content, and with far fewer staff, overseas media reports have indicated.
One of the supplement's editors had posted social media content related to the targeting of hundreds of Chinese rights lawyers in a nationwide crackdown since July 2015, in particular the accusations of subversion that many faced.
In recent years, the in-depth features department conducted lengthy coverage and extensive follow-up reports on a number of high-profile legal cases, including the case of a woman's murder in Hohhot, capital of the northern Inner Mongolia region, for which an innocent ethnic Mongolian youth, Huugjilt, was executed in 1996.
Serial rapist and murderer Zhao Zhihong later confessed to the murder and Huugjilt was posthumously exonerated.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.