TOKYO -- It was China's most important political event of the year, but the man in the spotlight looked exhausted.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, his eyelids swollen, wore a weary expression as he attended the annual session of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
"He looked absent-minded, like he was thinking about something else important," said one of the delegates to the event, held in Beijing from early March.
The seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese Communist Party's top decision-making body, were front and center during the two-week session, giving foreign journalists and others in Beijing a rare chance to observe them up close.
The seven members include Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan, who is in charge of disciplinary affairs, as well as Xi, who serves concurrently as the Communist Party's general secretary.
A close eye
In addition to the tired look on Xi's face, a strange scene, repeated later during the political extravaganza, also drew much attention.
As a female staff member carried a cup of tea to the president's seat just before he sat down, two male guards in black suits could be seen watching her carefully from either side.
This year's session of the National People's Congress, the country's parliament, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, its top political advisory body, marked the first time that such guards were so prominent.
"Their role is to always monitor (female staff members serving tea) to prevent them from poisoning (Xi)," said a source familiar with the matter in Beijing. "They are well-trained, so they would even be able to cope with an assailant if one appeared."
During the closing days of the events, the number of male guards monitoring a female staff member serving tea for Xi declined from two to one.
Behind the scenes
Tensions were running high within the Communist Party in early March following a major reshuffle of security officials responsible for the safety of Xi and other leaders.
In a sign he feared for his safety, Xi replaced the top officials of the Communist Party's Central Security Bureau and the Beijing municipal bureau of public security.
The Central Security Bureau is responsible for protecting Chinese leaders and for security in Beijing's Zhongnanhai area, where they are based. The bureau is directly affiliated with both the Communist Party's General Office and the People's Liberation Army General Staff Department.
Most bodyguards from the Central Security Bureau are military personnel. But the bureau's staffing is under the control of the General Office's director, a post customarily held by a close aide to the nation's top leader.
One of the most famous among the past directors of the Central Security Bureau is Wang Dongxing, who played a key role in the arrest of the Cultural Revolution's "Gang of Four."
The Central Security Bureau director and many other bureau officials replaced by Xi had taken their posts effectively at the behest of Ling Jihua, a former director of the General Office.
Ling, a close aide to former Chinese President Hu Jintao and one of Xi's political foes, was placed under investigation in December 2014 for disciplinary violations. Li Zhanshu, the current director of the General Office, is one of Xi's top aides.
Ling is rumored to have proposed "a coup by a new Gang of Four" that included Bo Xilai, the jailed former party chief of Chongqing city, Zhou Yongkang, the indicted former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and former People's Liberation Army General Xu Caihou, who died in March.
Ling, in collusion with the other three, allegedly plotted to block the inauguration of the Xi administration, leading Xi to fear a possible assassination attempt.
Wang Shaojun, who became head of the Central Security Bureau in the latest reshuffle, accompanied Xi on the latter's inspection of Jiangsu Province in December 2014. Wang was in charge of the president's bodyguards during the trip, a clear indication that he has Xi's trust.
The president's safety has been a matter of much concern in recent years. Some see Jiangsu as the most dangerous place for Xi because it is the home province and stronghold of political heavyweight Zhou, who once served as China's security chief.
Xi's reshuffle of General Office and Central Security Bureau personnel saw the replacement of many officials with links to Ling.
Ling's investigation for disciplinary violations was announced on Dec. 22, 2014. At the time, he had been serving as head of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party's Central Committee.
The sudden and sweeping reshuffle of security personnel speaks to the depth of the president's fears. Perhaps ironically, it was Xi's anti-corruption campaign, which he has used as a tool to topple political foes, that has created the power struggle now threatening his own safety.
Katsuji Nakazawa is former head of Nikkei's China Headquarters