Not far from the Stalinist monolith of the Military Museum in West Beijing stands a forest of well-guarded high-rise apartment blocks known as the "Ministers' Towers".
Here dwell the modern-day mandarins of the Communist Party who do not warrant a villa in the inner sanctum of the Zhongnanhai leadership compound. In the leafy streets surrounding the towers are the residences of former top leaders who have retired or slipped into obscurity but still require round-the-clock military protection.
Just down the road stands an imposing, windowless bunker that casts a shadow over the nervous armed soldiers patrolling its perimeter.
In the lull that followed the purge of Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in late September, this building became the center of speculation for the chattering classes as they tried to establish who the political winds would blow against next.
A continuous stream of black Audis entering and leaving the hulking compound during the National Day golden week holiday early last month lent credence to rumors that as many as 300 investigators from the party's internal discipline committee had taken up residence there.
Their brief was to investigate a corruption scandal involving a Macau businesswoman with direct links to Politburo standing committee member Jia Qinglin, one of the nine most powerful men in China.
According to the most popular theory circulating in Beijing, Jia, a former mayor of Beijing, is next in line for the guillotine in a bold political putsch orchestrated by President Hu Jintao, with the help of former Jiang Zemin triggerman Zeng Qinghong.
Also in the firing line is former Shanghai party boss Huang Ju, the member of the standing committee directly responsible for economic policy, who has been sidelined for much of this year, ostensibly because of debilitating pancreatic cancer.
It is Zeng's switch of allegiance from Jiang and his "Shanghai Clique" to Hu's more populist "harmonious society" camp that will allow such a sweeping purge of potential rivals, or so the theory goes.
But given the party's overwhelming need to avoid any sort of social instability, it would seem unlikely that Hu will go much further than Shanghai's unfortunate Mr Chen, the highest-level Chinese leader to be purged in a decade.
Rather than arrest and publicly humiliate his potential adversaries on the standing committee, Hu is much more likely to allow them to step down on account of their age (Jia is 66 and Huang 68) when the 17th party congress convenes next year to decide the country's new leaders.
Chen's detention, the investigation in Shanghai and the 300 investigators encamped so close to the Ministers' Towers are sufficient reminder to cadres at all levels of who is running the show in Beijing.
If the likes of Jia and Huang don't go quietly, the internal discipline inspectors will be mobilized once again and their job will not be a hard one.
Asked in private a few months ago whether the arrest of Beijing vice-mayor Liu Zhihua for corruption and "leading a decadent lifestyle" signaled an impending campaign to crack down on such behavior, a senior government official scoffed and said such a campaign would be a disaster for the country because it would mean purging around 90% the bureaucracy.
Taint one, taint all
The tactics used to demolish Chen, many of his subordinates, his business associates and his entire family were simple and effective and could be applied to almost anyone in a position of political influence in China, according to this official.
On August 11 Zhu Junyi, the director of the Labor and Social Security Bureau was fired for lending around US$400 million of pension funds to Fuxi Investment Holdings, a private toll road company. Fuxi's chairman Zhang Rongkun, said to be China's 16th richest man, was next to fall. He was joined by a number of ex-colleagues from Shanghai Electric, the country's largest electrical equipment maker, which he used to run. The investigation also closed in on some property developers, including the state-owned company behind Shanghai's iconic Tomorrow Square, on the edge of People's Square.
Qin Yu, the head of Shanghai's Baoshan district was the final link in the chain that led to Chen. Qin had worked directly under Chen for many years.
The conversion of political influence into material gain is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon but it flourishes particularly well in today's climate of secrecy and opaque business dealings.
Far from a serious attempt to deal with this systemic problem, the current purge is nothing more than the coup de grace on the Shanghai clique from Hu as he asserts his dominance over his rivals ahead of the 17th party congress next year.
That congress will most likely decide who succeeds Hu when he steps down in 2012 and should also elevate his populist "harmonious society" theory to at least the same level as former president Jiang's "three represents" theory, which is credited with allowing capitalists into the Communist Party.
One theory that certainly won't be enshrined in the party lexicon next year is this one, attributed to Chen prior to his arrest and posted in English on the Shanghai government website: "Worry What the People are Worry and Be Happy With What the People are Happy With."
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