President Xi Jinping is under growing political pressure from within the ranks of the ruling Chinese Communist Party over his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
An open letter circulating online since last week calls for an emergency, expanded meeting of the Politburo to discuss "Xi's issues" and to decide if he should step down from his leadership of party, government and military.
The letter says Xi's handling of the coronavirus epidemic should be discussed, but also the trade war with the U.S. and his fueling of mistrust of China in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The letter was shared to WeChat by Chen Ping, founder of Hong Kong-based broadcaster SunTV, according to Deutsche Welle and Radio Taiwan International.
Chen wrote in a WeChat post: "I saw it in a WeChat group, and I felt that it was moderate and rational, so I reposted it."
"But I don't know who wrote it," he said. "A lot of other people reposted this anonymous letter online."
Former Tsinghua University politics lecturer Wu Qiang said the letter comes soon after the disappearance and presumed detention of social media star and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang.
Ren is currently incommunicado, believed detained, after an article critical of the government's response to the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan appeared online.
Health authorities in China are reporting no new infections in the central city of Wuhan where the COVID-19 epidemic first emerged, but local residents have said they fear there could be a resurgence of new cases amid an ongoing official cover-up.
Wu said there is also growing discontent over Xi's rule among the second-generation "princeling" faction in the ruling party which includes some prominent offspring of veteran Communist Party heroes and revolutionary leaders.
"More and more princelings are diverging further and further away from Xi Jinping," Wu said. "The divergence is caused by the disappearance of Ren Zhiqiang."
"Naturally, Ren's disappearance has to do with the earlier ... open letter," he said. "It is indicative of a growing sense of disappointment among the princeling faction that is getting harder and harder to hide."
"It goes along with a sense of fellow feeling [over Ren's disappearance], which is now developing into open criticism," Wu said.
The article attributed to Ren was titled "The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system."
While it didn't mention President Xi, it took aim at decisions made under his direct command, including the decision to go ahead with a mass Lunar New Year banquet for thousands of people in Wuhan, that resulted in a huge cluster of COVID-19 cases in the weeks that followed.
"The emperor is holding up a piece of cloth, trying to cover up the fact that he is wearing no clothes at all, although his ambition to be a strong leader is naked enough," the article quipped.
A Hong Kong-based academic surnamed Li said he wasn't optimistic that the open letter would spark any change at the top.
"For one thing, it's being circulated anonymously, and on the other, nobody within the current power structure has come out to endorse it," Li said.
Instead, Beijing has gone on the offensive with a wave of propaganda about its handling of the coronavirus epidemic.
"The Chinese Communist Party has unleashed a wave of propaganda boasting about the advantages of the [Chinese political] system," he said. "Further brainwashing of population should ease some of the pressure they are under from public opinion."
China's leaders have been known to hold expanded meetings of the Politburo at times of national crisis, when retired politicians have been allowed to attend.
Such meetings have been held at key moments in Communist Party history, including one in December 1966 that paved the way for the 10 years of political turmoil and violence known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
In 1980, late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping presided over another expanded Politburo meeting, heralding more than three decades of economic reform.
A similar meeting paved the way for the ouster of late premier Zhao Ziyang in the wake of the 1989 student-led mass movement on Tiananmen Square.
The open letter posted by Chen Ping calls for a similarly expanded Politburo meeting in the spirit of the 1980 meeting.
The anonymous letter is the latest in a string of high-profile criticisms of Xi.
China's state security police are currently investigating detained dissident Xu Zhiyong for subversion after he called in an open letter for Xi to resign.
Xu is currently being held incommunicado in "residential surveillance at a designated location" (RSDL), where he can be held without contact with family or a lawyer for up to six months.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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