It used to be that if a Chinese official said to be facing potential disciplinary action gets to make a public appearance or pen an essay in a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) publication, he would be deemed to have been spared the punishment.
But such rules no longer hold true in the anti-corruption campaign led by President Xi Jinping and disciplinary chief Wang Qishan and begun in December 2012, which has struck fear in many officials while winning praise from the Chinese public.
The latest example was seen in the graft probe announced on Monday against former president Hu Jintao's long-time aide and United Work Front chief Ling Jihua, 58.
Dogged by rumours of being investigated for graft and other, politically linked, misdeeds, Mr Ling was thought by some to have escaped punishment after publishing an essay that pledged support for Mr Xi on Dec 15 in a Communist Party magazine.
His fate followed that of two other "tigers", a term referring to senior officials whom Mr Xi has pledged to target along with "flies" or low- ranking officials in the anti-graft drive.
Retired security czar Zhou Yongkang, 72, made a public appearance at his alma mater in October last year but was reportedly placed under investigation two months later. He was arrested and sacked from the party earlier this month, on Dec 5.
Former Central Military Commission vice-chair Xu Caihou, 71, appeared with Mr Xi at a public function in January but was probed in March and sacked from the party in June.
"Now, the rules of the game have changed. The indications like public appearances are useless," said Singapore-based political analyst Bo Zhiyue. "There are no signs on how one can save his skin. This is what makes this anti-corruption campaign different from others."
The current campaign also differs from past ones in other ways, besides the higher number of "tigers and flies" being targeted this time.
For one thing, that it is still continuing after two years sets it apart from past campaigns which usually end within a year, after helping new leaders to purge political opponents and consolidate their power bases.
There was strong talk that the current campaign might die down after scoring a new high with the arrest of Zhou, who is set to become the first member of the apex Politburo Standing Committee to stand trial for graft.
However, the launch of the probe against Mr Ling has fuelled a belief among some that the anti-corruption drive might escalate instead.
Also, more are convinced that Mr Xi is waging a long-term anti-graft war rather than a short-term political purge, based on unprecedented efforts in the current drive to swat the "flies", deemed the bigger graft scourge than the "tigers".
Yesterday, it was reported that Mr Sun Hongzhi, deputy head of business regulator State Administration for Industry and Commerce, was under investigation for suspected corruption.
Other steps to systemically weed out corruption include deployment of supervision officers at all key party and government organisations.
No wonder the Chinese public, despite being used to anti-graft campaigns, is caught up by the current effort, lapping up every news report of another "tiger" nabbed.
Chinese netizens recently voted anti-corruption, or fanfu in Chinese, as their word of the year. The fight against graft is one of the hottest online topics this year, according to Internet opinion research centres here.
However, doubts have been cast on the effectiveness of the drive in making China less corrupt, with media reports that officials are demanding bigger bribe amounts to cover their tracks and make it worth the risk.
China has also slipped 20 places to rank 100 among 175 states in the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index conducted by the Berlin-based Transparency International.
A spokesman for the non-profit group told The New York Times there is a perception that China's anti-corruption campaign was "incomplete, politically motivated and opaque", and that what is needed are "stronger laws on bribery, access to information, whistle-blower protection, more open budgets and asset declarations".
There are also reports on the negative impact of the campaign, including how it might have contributed to a declining interest in a civil service career and stalled implementation of much-needed reforms in the bureaucracy and state sector.
Concerns that the drive might be over-reaching itself have also spiked after the launch of the probe against Mr Ling, with Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam arguing that the move poses more risks than benefits.
Mr Xi and Mr Wang have already proven their determination to fight corruption and also eradicated political opposition by targeting Zhou and General Xu, noted Professor Lam. Probing Mr Ling, however, could lead to Mr Hu stopping his support for the current leadership, he said.
Sydney-based analyst Kerry Brown said the move shows that Mr Xi is looking like someone "who is frighteningly ruthless, and starting to show signs of becoming a demagogue". "It will create a climate of fear and risk finally splitting the party. Xi is starting to look rather terrifying," he said.
Wuhan University analyst Qin Qianhong thinks there is a need to vary or lower the level of intensity of the drive or it "may cause stress to the political order".
But those hoping it will die down will be disappointed, said Nottingham University's Steve Tsang. "Xi is focused on revitalising the CCP as a Leninist instrument of control under his leadership, and for this purpose he needs to reduce corruption within the party, and thus he will continue with the anti-corruption drive, as least as long as it still serves the intended purpose," he said.
This article was first published on December 27, 2014.
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