The first public signs of a political rift caused by China's relentless anti-corruption campaign have emerged, with President Xi Jinping acknowledging that his high-level crackdown has created a stalemate with "two confronting armies".
Mr Xi also said he has disregarded his own reputation and even his life to fight graft, in a stirring speech at a Politburo meeting at the end of June, just before he sacked retired military leader Xu Caihou and placed former security czar Zhou Yongkang under disciplinary investigations.
"(I) had left life and death, as well as my personal reputation, out of consideration in the combat against corruption," he was quoted as saying by north-eastern Changbaishan city's party boss Li Wei, in a newspaper report published on Monday.
Observers say Mr Xi's strongly worded remarks reflect how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have been unsettled or even divided internally over his campaign that has toppled nearly 40 "tigers", or senior officials.
"Xi's speech shows the party is undergoing a very intense struggle, so much so that he had to use such harsh words to reflect his determination," Renmin University political analyst Zhang Ming told The Straits Times.
The anti-graft campaign fronted by disciplinary chief Wang Qishan since December 2012 has largely been supported by party cadres and veterans, who see the need for a cleaner CCP to retain public support.
But concerns have surfaced since July 29 when Mr Zhou became the first retired member of the apex Politburo Standing Committee to face a formal probe.
Mr Zhou's downfall followed that of General Xu, a retired vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission who became the most senior military leader to be sacked from the party on June 30.
There have been mixed signals in the Chinese media on whether the anti-corruption drive would cool off or should continue to hunt for big tigers like Mr Zhou.
Some believe Mr Xi's speech signals that he would press on with his anti-graft fight.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed source "familiar with the President's speech" as saying that Mr Xi made the strongly worded speech to counter critics and erase doubts about the campaign.
Mr Xi warned party elites that nothing would be off-limits in his anti-graft drive and dismissed the argument that "the relentless drive against errant officials would only plunge the country into chaos" and that he would "eat humble pie".
"What is there to be scared of?" Mr Xi asked at the Politburo meeting, according to the source.
But in an intriguing move, a commentary published this week by the party-linked People's Daily warned of a possible collective counter-attack from "real big tigers" - powerful current and former leaders suspected of corruption - that would result in "unimaginable consequences" if the party were to hunt for them.
The author, Sun Yat-sen University's CCP historian Guo Wenliang, wrote: "If there are no effective preventive or control mechanisms towards such risks and the struggles are allowed to intensify, it could trigger considerable negative effects."
Political analyst Bo Zhiyue believes the commentary reflects the concerns among the "tiger- fighters" of a potential backlash.
"They may be worried that those associated with the fallen tigers may take revenge on their behalf or if they are pressed into a corner," the East Asian Institute analyst told The Straits Times.
But Dr Bo does not believe it is easy for big tigers to gang up on the leadership.
"It is really hard to imagine the retired leaders, with different interests and their own networks, working together against the current leadership," he said.
He also noted that in Chinese political factions, members are known to denounce their links to those in trouble. He cited former president Jiang Zemin, deemed the godfather of the Shanghai clique, who was unscathed despite the downfall of the city's party chief Chen Liangyu in 2006.
Still, observers believe the possibility of a potential counter-attack would concern Mr Xi and Mr Wang enough to cool down their campaign - for now.
This article was first published on August 07, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.