BEIJING -- In a speech in Seattle on Sept. 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping tried to change the widely shared perception that his anti-corruption campaign is actually an attempt to purge his political rivals.
The crackdown on corruption "has nothing to do with a power struggle," he said. "In this case there is no 'House of Cards,'" he joked, referring to the popular political drama about intrigue and treachery among power-hungry politicos in Washington.
Despite his attempt to cast his campaign as purely an effort to stamp out endemic corruption within the Communist Party and the government, it is widely assumed to actually indicate a ferocious political battle raging behind closed doors.
During the two and a half years since he took power, Xi has taken down a bevy of political heavyweights. Among the casualties are Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee who controlled oil interests, and two former top military officers, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. The three were prominent figures in the powerful clique led by former President Jiang Zemin.
Xi has also engineered the downfall of Ling Jihua, a former top aide to Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, by charging him with corruption.
Because of Xi's relentless attack on the Jiang group, the appearance of the former president at the military parade on Sept. 3 was even more of a surprise.
Xi smiled as he talked to Jiang on the rostrum at Tiananmen Square, and Jiang responded with smiles.
But the friendly gestures of the two were simply an act, intended to give the appearance of party unity.
Xi has shown no intention of easing up in his fight to squash Jiang's political influence.
A striking sign of his steely determination to crush the "Shanghai clique" of Jiang confidants recently appeared at the Shanghai branch of the People's Liberation Army's Nanjing Political College, a prestigious educational institution in the Nanjing Military Region.
A person who recently visited the institution was stunned to find the calligraphy by Jiang, which used to cover a wall of a school building clearly visible from the gate, had been removed and replaced by Xi's. "I never imagined that Xi would dare switch [Jiang's calligraphy] with his own," the person said. "This is a blatant swipe at Jiang!"
Despite tight restrictions on media reports, the behind-the-scenes battle between Xi and the Jiang group is becoming increasingly exposed to the public eye in Shanghai.
Hu also faced annoying political interference by Jiang, but was unable to muster the influence to mount a head-on challenge to the powerful Shanghai group. But Xi is different. He has launched an all-out war against Jiang's power base.
Xi's brand-new wall calligraphy at the Shanghai school offers an unmistakable message. It reads: "Become an army of integrity for the people, that is capable of winning and obeys the party's commands. Xi Jinping."
In other words, the president made it clear that he regards the Nanjing Military Region as being corrupt, weak and disobedient.
At the end of last year, Xi inspected the headquarters of the Nanjing Military Region, where Jiang's political influence remains strong.
Xi has promoted his allies in the region to top posts at the Beijing Military Region, which is responsible for defending the capital, and the People's Armed Police, which is in charge of maintaining law and order.
The president has a network of personal connections in the Nanjing Military Region, thanks to his long stints in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces.
With these moves, Xi has mostly cleansed the military of Jiang's influence and solidified his grip on the People's Liberation Army.
Xi showed off his control of the military in the colossal parade in Tiananmen Square. The event was emceed by Premier Li Keqiang. In the past, the task was assigned to the top party official of the city of Beijing. The shift is another symbol of the concentration of power in Xi's hands.
He also announced a plan to reduce military personnel by 300,000. "The plan will enable Xi to dismiss officers not loyal to him under the pretext of scaling down the military," one informed observer explained.
By chasing out Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong along with their followers, Xi seems to be acting to get the military under his thumb.
Xi recently took another symbolic step to highlight the decline of Jiang's political clout.
The Central Party School of the Communist Party is located near the Summer Palace in Beijing, the largest and best-preserved imperial park in China. A huge rock sporting the name of the school in Jiang's calligraphy used to be placed beside the street in front of the school.
The rock was a popular spot for tourists to take commemorative photographs. But it suddenly disappeared in late August, and the site was bulldozed. It turned out that the rock had been moved inside the gate so that it would attract far less attention.
Party members saw the relocation of the rock as another sign of Jiang's waning power.
Immediately before the move, the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, carried an article denouncing the evils of a former leader's efforts to keep influencing politics.
Under the pretext of cracking down on corruption, Xi has been striving hard to concentrate power in his hands and secure his name in the history books as a powerful and influential leader rivaling Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. But Xi has a tough, do-or-die battle on his hands, with many party elders poised to fight back.
Also attending the Sept. 3 military parade were 15 surviving party elders, with Zhou Yongkang, who is in jail, conspicuously missing. The oldest among them was Song Ping, 98.
With this old guard still wielding considerable influence over China's rough-and-tumble political universe, it is still premature to say that Xi is winning the power struggle.