Beijing has announced a "retraining" program for thousands of law enforcement officials across the country in a move that analysts said suggested that security chief Zhou Yongkang may be the next Chinese leader to feel the after-effects of the recent ouster of Chongqing Communist Party chief Bo Xilai.
The program was announced this week by the Politics and Law Committee at the highest level of Party leadership, and will involved the "collective training" in Beijing beginning next week of 3,300 officials in similar committees at the provincial, municipal and county levels.
Zhou, who is the ninth-ranking leader on China's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, is widely seen as being politically close to Bo, and the announcement could mean that his political future is now also in doubt.
According to Sichuan-based lawyer Li Shuangde, the politics and law committees comprise some of the most powerful people in China's regional governments.
"The Chinese Communist Party has a monopoly on everything in the political system," Liu said. "These politics and law committees basically consist of the local police chief, the head of the judiciary, the local chief prosecutor and the head of the justice bureau," he said.
"Unless they are abolished, there will never be judicial independence, and Chinese people will never get justice."
The ideological training sessions will begin on Monday in Beijing, and come hard on the heels of rumors of a coup and unconfirmed reports that Zhou is now unlikely to be seen in public again.
Zhou has headed the Party's top Political and Legal Affairs Committee, which oversees police and judicial matters, since 2007.
Meanwhile, Bo's whereabouts are still unknown, and the government has not yet made any public statement on what will happen to him.
An unconfirmed leaked Party document suggested earlier this week that his downfall came after he moved to cover up allegations of corruption made by his then police chief Wang Lijun, who later sought refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
According to Beijing-based lawyer Tang Jitian, the role of the politics and law committees was greatly weakened under the political reforms of ousted former premier Zhao Ziyang, who died in 2007.
"There was even a time when they were thinking of abolishing them altogether," Tang said. "But then they strengthened them again because of certain social forces at work."
"Now, these committees have real political power, and they have played a decisive role in a number of cases; they act like a court above the court," he said.
Tang said that the current structure meant that the committees were a very powerful force throughout China's judicial system because of their somewhat nebulous role.
"There is nowhere that their influence doesn't make itself felt," he said. "Especially when it comes to precedent-setting cases involving ordinary people trying to defend their rights."
The move to "re-educate" Zhou's officials comes after online rumors that the security chief had tried to stage a coup in Beijing, and that gunshots were heard in the vicinity of the central government compound of Zhongnanhai.
The rumors were quickly removed from China's hugely popular microblogging platforms.
Local residents said there was a strong police presence in the area.
"There were a lot of police during the parliamentary sessions [earlier this month,]" said an employee who answered the phone at a restaurant on Chang'an Avenue, not far from Tiananmen Square.
Asked if police numbers had risen in the past few days, she said: "Yes, there really are a lot of police."
"In the past couple of days we have [had to perform security checks on customers,]" the employee said.
However, an employee at a nearby hotel said security checks had ended after the parliamentary sessions closed last week.
The search phrase "Chang'an Avenue" and "gunshots" were being filtered on key Chinese search engines this week, netizens said.
However, a Beijing resident surnamed Bei said he didn't believe the reports of gunfire.
"During the parliementary sessions, there were a lot of checkpoints for vehicles and very strict security checks," Bei said. "But after the parliament ended things got a bit more relaxed."
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.