President Xi Jinping has accused five disgraced ruling Chinese Communist Party leaders of involvement in "political conspiracies," suggesting that China's "core" leader is still waging high-level power struggles within party ranks, analysts told RFA.
Jailed former high-ranking leaders Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, and Ling Jihua had "all engaged in political conspiracy activities," according to a copy of a speech made by Xi at a high-level political meeting last October and published by state-run news agency Xinhua.
"[They were] politically ambitious, often being compliant in public but oppositional in secret, and forming cliques for personal interests and engaging in conspiracy activities," Xi said of the five while addressing party leaders at the sixth plenum of the Central Committee in Beijing last autumn, a top political meeting that is held behind closed doors.
He told the meeting, which later described him as a "core leader," that the disgraced former leaders were also financially greedy and led corrupt lifestyles.
Xi's ideological campaign intensified earlier this year with his tour of the country's leading state media outlets, and is intended to send out a strong message that "careerists and conspirators" and "cabals and cliques" won't be tolerated in party ranks.
"There are careerists and conspirators existing in our party and undermining the party's governance," Xi had said last January, without naming any names.
A veiled attack
All five former leaders are currently serving jail terms for corruption and abuse of power.
But Xi's speech, and his insistence on being made a "core" leader, also highlights the president's concerns that not everyone in the ruling party is behind his sweeping anti-corruption campaign, with many criticizing it as a veiled attack on the president's political rivals, analysts told RFA.
Xia Ming, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island in New York, said Xi appears to be harking back to the era of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, who ruled from behind the scenes long after his retirement.
"Deng Xiaoping was the de facto supreme leader, even though he didn't hold a high-ranking post," Xia said. "But he still used to discuss things with [other high-ranking leaders], and that's how they came up with the idea of a collective system of leadership."
That collective system, in which power is shared between the members of the Politburo standing committee, continued under Deng's successor Jiang Zemin, he said.
"Under [Jiang's successor] Hu Jintao we even had nine chiefs running the place, who were represented by nine seats on the Politburo standing committee, each of which was in charge of a different part of government," Xia said.
The Communist Party's ideological journal Qiushi said in a recent commentary that "party members and officials in some departments and regions have been secretly opposing certain of the central government's policies in private, while appearing to support them in public."
"Some even publicly express dissenting opinions regarding some of the most important political issues of the day, or on the ideological line taken by the party," it warned.
According to Xia, each of the "five conspirators" represented an independent power base within the ruling party that Xi has seen as a threat to his authority.
"Zhou Yongkang was at the head of the political and legal affairs [domestic security] interest group, while Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong represented the military," he said. "Ling Jihua represented [Hu Jintao's] Youth League faction, while Bo Xilai represented the princelings," he said, referring to second-generation Communist Party elite.
'The wrong direction'
Xi needed to neutralize them to achieve his political aims, Xia argues.
"He wants to rule alone and set himself up as a core leader, ending the system of collective leadership instituted under Deng Xiaoping," he said. "But this is a step in the wrong direction."
"Xi Jinping wants an extreme form of dictatorship and authoritarian government, so he must have the loyalty of every single official," he said.
Constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said Xi may have added the "core" epithet to his name, but he has yet to earn the authority it implies.
"He may have the core name, but he doesn't yet wield core power," Zhang said. "Either that, or he doesn't yet feel secure, and is constantly worrying that people are out to get him."
"Perhaps there really are people out to get him, but I don't think we'd be seeing [these speeches from him] if he didn't feel insecure and lack confidence in his own authority," he said.
Zhang said the fact that the Bo Xilai scandal blew up just as Xi was preparing to take over the leadership of the party was likely behind Xi's worries.
"But I don't think that he is only referring to events in the past [in this speech]," he added. "He is using events in the past as a stick to beat people with in the present."
Wang Zheng, who lectures at the Beijing Institute of Economic Management, said she is unhappy with the "conspiracy" label when applied to Bo Xilai.
"He was just trying to use every means in his power to get ahead," Wang said. "I actually think that it will be very hard to replace someone like [Bo], from the point of view of the national interest."
Since taking power in 2012, Chinese president Xi Jinping has launched an ongoing anti-corruption campaign targeting high-ranking "tigers" along with low-ranking "flies."
But political commentators say the anti-corruption campaign is highly selective, while rights lawyers have slammed the party's internal investigation system for resorting to torture and other abuses to elicit forced confessions.
According to Wang Xiangwei, former China editor of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper, Xi has already amassed unprecedented levels of power, but is still meeting resistance when he tries to use it to implement nationwide economic reforms or investigate corruption.
"Xi chaired a session of the Politburo Standing Committee just 10 days ago to discuss punishments for nearly 140 local bureaucrats and officials of two steel companies found guilty of colluding to circumvent one of Xi’s economic priorities," Wang wrote in a recent commentary for the paper.
"Local officials have remained resistant to such directives, [and] numerous steel companies in Jiangsu and Hebei have openly flouted the central government’s wishes," he wrote.
"By making the latest meeting public, Xi clearly saw the blatant disregard of local officials as a direct challenge to central authority and intended to use the punishments as a stern warning to others."
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.