TOKYO -- The recent detention of a senior government official has sent shock waves through Beijing and sparked speculation that a more influential figure might also fall victim to President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-corruption campaign.
"Xi has now set his sights on a big tiger," one source said. "Something terrible could happen."
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Communist Party's top anti-graft body, announced on May 30 that Li Yunfeng, the vice governor of Jiangsu Province, has been placed under investigation for serious disciplinary violations.
Li is also a candidate member of the party's Central Committee.
Xi has vowed to crack down on both "tigers" and "flies" -- influential figures and low-level officials -- in his anti-corruption drive.
Wang Qishan is spearheading the anti-corruption campaign, which has been netting one influential figure after another. Wang is one of Xi's key allies and heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
Immediately after Li's detention, one Chinese online media outlet asked, "Where is Wang Qishan now?"
After delivering a speech on April 20, the anti-corruption czar disappeared from the public eye for more than a month. The media report suggested that he might have moved behind the scenes to crack down on another influential figure.
In Xi's cross hairs
Li was born near Zhenjiang, a city in Jiangsu along the Yangtze River and about 250km west-northwest of Shanghai. Zhenjiang is an ancient city known for its production of black rice vinegar. It is also a strategic transportation hub.
As I wrote in this weekly column last June, Xi had a hidden agenda when he made an inspection tour of Zhenjiang at the end of 2014.
Since retiring, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has continued to wield enormous political influence. Zhenjiang literally means "bringing Jiang under control." Xi actually visited the city to demonstrate his firm resolve to counter Jiang's influence.
Yangzhou, Jiang's hometown in Jiangsu, is just across the Yangtze River from Zhenjiang. Many people have been so afraid of Jiang that no local bridge has ever been given a name with Zhenjiang in it.
The Runyang Yangtze River Bridge was completed in 2005, linking Zhenjiang, on the south side of the Yangtze, and Yangzhou.
When the project was still in the planning stage, rumors spread through the local community that Jiang frowned in displeasure when he learned the bridge was tentatively named "the Zhenjiang Yangtze River Bridge."
Alarmed by the rumors, local officials and others decided to dub the bridge the "Runyang Yangtze River Bridge." The run in Runyang comes from Runzhou, the ancient name of Zhenjiang.
Runyang literally means "benefiting Yang" and can also be interpreted as meaning "benefiting Yangzhou," Jiang's hometown.
Li Yunfeng was also involved in this episode.
When it was unfolding around 2000, Jiang was still China's top leader, and Li was deputy secretary-general of the provincial party committee. Back then, Li would often consult Jiang about important local matters.
Li was also reporting directly to Li Yuanchao, the Communist Party's secretary in Jiangsu, the highest post in the province. Li Yuanchao is now China's vice president and a member of the party's Politburo.
Li Yuanchao had been likely to join the Politburo Standing Committee at the party's 2012 national congress. But he was not promoted to the top decision-making body and assumed the largely ceremonial post of Chinese vice president instead.
The seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is led by President Xi, who doubles as the party's general secretary. Wang is also a member of the powerful committee.
Li Yuanchao is a core member of the Communist Youth League faction, a massive political force within the party. The faction boasts nearly 90 million members.
Jiangsu is Li Yuanchao's hometown and political stronghold. Li Yunfeng rose up the party ladder on the coattails of Li Yuanchao. The former was, so to speak, "the head clerk" for the latter in Jiangsu.
There is no doubt that Li Yuanchao was shocked at the detention of such a close aide on corruption charges.
Many political observers in Beijing agree that with the head clerk being held, Xi now has his sights set on Li Yuanchao.
Major political setback
Many regional leaders, especially those groomed by Xi, at the beginning of the year began to publicly refer to "the consciousness of the core." They did so at the president's behest. In fact, the term spread quickly throughout China's political world.
The "core" is a reference to Xi being the central processing unit of China's leadership.
But the carefully choreographed campaign has been derailed by strong criticism, even from within the so-called "second red generation," for smacking of a personality cult. Party rules ban personality cults.
Xi belongs to both the Princeling faction and the second red generation. Princelings are the children of prominent and influential senior party officials, while the second red generation is a smaller group of children of revolutionary-era Communist Party leaders.
Since becoming China's top leader more than three years ago, Xi has been wielding his anti-corruption campaign against his political foes and to consolidate power.
He has managed to concentrate a significant amount, but his "consciousness of the core" campaign resulted in his first political setback as president.
When the campaign fizzled out, the Communist Youth League faction, which rivals the Princeling faction, seized on the opportunity to try to unsettle the Xi camp.
The Communist Youth League faction's main, albeit indirect, target was Wang, the graft buster. One of Wang's biggest purges was that of Ling Jihua, a key member of the faction and a close aide to former President Hu.
Anyway, online media outlets affiliated with the Communist Youth League faction launched tenacious attacks on Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken property tycoon belonging to the second red generation and an opinion leader on the internet. Ren and Wang are tight.
The sharp-tongued blogger had been blasting media controls by the Communist Party's Publicity Department. His blog posts made a splash and won support among many Chinese netizens, but he came under a barrage of criticism from the department.
That is when the media outlets affiliated with the Communist Youth League faction got involved. They also alluded to Ren's close relationship with Wang by asking, "Why is Ren Zhiqiang so confident?"
The Communist Party's Xicheng district committee on May 2 announced that Ren had been placed on probation for a year for violating the party's political discipline code. Xicheng is a district in Beijing.
Xi's political position has been stronger in the past. He is now facing strong headwinds -- concerns among some party officials about his governing style, his tough media controls and the slowing Chinese economy.
In a noteworthy development, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, fully realizing how China's political landscape has begun to shift, albeit slightly, in his favor, finally made up his mind a couple months ago to take a first step in his efforts to counter Xi's unrivaled power.
Premier Li is ranked second in the Communist Party hierarchy, after Xi. He was supposed to serve as China's economic czar in Xi's administration. But Li Keqiang actually has no such authority because Xi has consolidated so much power in his own hands.
So on April 15, Li Keqiang visited Tsinghua University, a prestigious educational institution in Beijing and Xi's alma mater, before visiting Peking University, his own alma mater, later the same day.
Premier Li made the visits to drum up support among students and intellectuals.
While China's No. 2 is betting big on intellectuals, Xi counts on the military and general public to contain any moves by Li and other political foes.
Li Keqiang also has begun to aggressively speak about the anti-corruption campaign, over which Xi is supposed to have exclusive jurisdiction.
Former President Hu and Premier Li have been the top leaders of the Communist Youth League faction. Hu has retired, though, and Li is now expected to hold the faction together.
But despite the Communist Youth League faction's hostile gambit, Xi and Wang have never flinched.
In fact, Xi effectively launched a massive counterattack against his political foes only a day after the Communist Party's Xicheng district committee announced that Ren had been placed on probation.
On May 3, the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published the full text of a speech that Xi delivered four months earlier during a meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
In the speech, Xi strongly warned of "cabals and cliques" in the Communist Party. The full text was published, apparently as a prelude to a fresh wave of purges targeting those who are deemed corrupt officials, such as Li Yunfeng.
One observer in Beijing said Xi "is now trying to regain some lost political ground" ahead of both this summer's so-called Beidaihe meeting and the Communist Party's next quinquennial national congress, in 2017, where top-level personnel changes will be made.
The Communist Party has held the closed-door Beidaihe meeting in the seaside resort city of the same name in Hebei Province every summer for years now. The conclave brings together the country's current leaders and elders from earlier generations to informally discuss important issues.
Premier Li and Li Yuanchao, Li Yunfeng's mentor, are both graduates of Peking University. They are also both students of Li Yining, a prominent Chinese economist.
Xi has been more alarmed by Li Yuanchao than by Premier Li, whom Xi sees as lacking in political sense. Li Yuanchao once served as the head of the Communist Party's Organization Department and is widely known to be shrewd.
By detaining Jiangsu "tiger" Li Yunfeng, Xi is pressuring former President Jiang's group, known as the Shanghai faction, as well as the Communist Youth League faction.
These factions have strong influence in Jiangsu. Besides being a close aide to Li Yuanchao, Li Yunfeng has personal connections with the Shanghai faction.
President Xi wants to prevent the two factions from forming a united front against him. This is why Jiangsu is again bearing the brunt of Xi's anti-corruption crusade.
Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee belonging to the Jiang-led faction, already has been purged in Xi's anti-corruption campaign. Zhou was born in Wuxi, Jiangsu.
Yang Weize, a former top official in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu, also has been purged. Yang is close to Jiang and Zhou.
Meanwhile, Li Yuanchao made a public appearance at a round-table discussion on June 1 -- only two days after the corruption probe into Li Yunfeng was announced -- in an apparent bid to make his presence felt.
As things stand now, Xi has two options regarding Li Yuanchao.
One is to actually crack down on him, which would be risky but significantly impact top-level personnel changes at the Communist Party's 2017 national congress in Xi's favor.
The other option is to stop one step short of actually cracking down on the head clerk if he and other members of the Communist Youth League faction show a willingness to come to heel.
At least two other figures hold keys in this power struggle -- the elders Hu and Jiang.
China's complicated and fierce political tug-of-war will continue behind the scenes in the run-up to this summer's Beidaihe meeting.