If there's anything the corruption probes into two top-ranking officials in Beijing and Shanghai show, it is that they could signal the start of a new wave in President Xi Jinping's anti-graft campaign against high-ranking "tigers", experts say.
But the downfall of Beijing deputy party boss Lu Xiwen and Shanghai vice-mayor Ai Baojun this week also marks a significant milestone in the three-year campaign: There is now at least one "tiger" netted in each of China's 31 provincial-level administrative areas.
"These recent probes show that anti-graft efforts have been sped up since the Fifth Plenum. It is likely that consensus was reached then to push the campaign forward further," East Asian Institute analyst Chen Gang told The Straits Times, referring to a meeting of top party officials at the end of last month.
"With tigers now caught in all 31 provinces, the final three within the past week alone, the authorities can also say its probes are against corruption and not part of an internal political struggle," he said.
Last Friday, vice-governor Bai Xueshan became the first "tiger" netted in northern Ningxia region.
Until now, Beijing and Shanghai - China's political and economic capitals respectively - remained the only two places yet to see a top official implicated in a corruption probe. A major reason could be that the two centres serve as power bases for senior leaders, experts say.
Mr Xi launched his anti-graft drive to nab highly placed "tigers" and more lowly "flies" after coming to power in November 2012.
Political analyst Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said that, unlike before, the recent investigations seem to be part of a new wave targeting senior corrupt officials who are not linked to the political enemies of Mr Xi.
"Many tigers caught previously were associates of people like Zhou Yongkang and Ling Jihua, including those from their political bases of Sichuan and Shanxi provinces," Professor Lam told The Straits Times. "But it looks like a start of a new wave this time."
There had been speculation that Zhou, China's one-time security czar, and Ling, a one-time senior aide to former President Hu Jintao, belonged to a political faction opposed to Mr Xi.
Together with fallen political star Bo Xilai and retired general Xu Caihou, the alleged cabal has been dubbed the "New Gang of Four".
Experts say that the recent developments suggest that more "tigers" can be expected to fall as the party intensifies its anti-corruption efforts.
"Once you have captured tigers, you cannot turn back. There can only be more as there is usually a network of corrupt officials," Professor Bo Zhiyue of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand told The Straits Times.
But he cautioned that due process has to be put in place when determining guilt so that the image of the Communist Party is not negatively affected.
Shenzhen University analyst Ma Jingren is optimistic that gradual change is at hand.
He said the next phase in the anti-graft drive is likely to be a "constructive" one.
"We are now moving to a new phase where China is placing the process under the rule of law. We are also seeing increased participation from the people and the media in tackling corruption," he told The Straits Times.
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