BEIJING - A group of Communist Party elders has issued a daring open letter calling for the removal of China's top security official, amid political upheaval ahead of a once-a-decade leadership transition.
The calls for the sacking of Zhou Yongkang, one of China's top nine leaders, are closely linked to the recent fall of Bo Xilai - another high-ranking official - which triggered the nation's biggest political scandal in decades.
Zhao Zhengrong - a retired anti-corruption official from Zhaotong city in the southwestern province of Yunnan - told AFP he and 15 other party members had sent the proposal advocating Zhou's removal to higher authorities.
"We are demanding this because Zhou Yongkang directed the 'Chongqing model' and supported Bo Xilai. They are liars, they are of the same ilk," Zhao said. Two other signatories to the open letter confirmed it to AFP.
Zhao was referring to Bo's rule of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing, which included an anti-mafia crackdown that many say involved widespread use of torture, and a leftist revival that saw residents sing Maoist songs.
The letter is an audacious step in China, where open dissent or organised criticism of top leaders is severely punished normally.
Analysts say Bo's March removal as Chongqing head and his subsequent suspension in April from the party's 25-member Politburo is indicative of a big split in the leadership.
They say those advocating a return to Maoist conservatism - as advocated by Bo and Zhou - and a political reform faction seeking to advance the rule of law are vying for power ahead of the expected leadership change.
Top posts including party general secretary as well as the state president and premier are due to change hands in the transition starting this year.
The calls for Zhou's removal as head of the party's Politics and Law Commission - which oversees China's judiciary, prosecution and police - come amid speculation he has already been stripped of his powers.
Rights activists have accused him of manipulating the judiciary and police to aid Bo's extra-legal crackdown on organised crime in Chongqing - a clampdown they say could have been expanded nationwide if Bo had kept his job.
"Bo Xilai's attack on the mafia depended on the judicial system under the leadership of Zhou Yongkang, including the police, courts and the prosecution," retired Shandong University professor and social critic Sun Wenguang told AFP.
"The methods they were using to attack the mafia were destroying judicial independence and judicial fairness. This led to a lot of unjust trials and further spread terror throughout society."