[BEIJING] Allies of Chinese President Xi Jinping are moving against a Communist organisation that is the power base of Premier Li Keqiang, in what analysts say may be a sign of faction-fighting at the top of the ruling party.
The Communist Youth League (CYL) has long been a proving ground for young up-and-comers to demonstrate their political talent, particularly those who - unlike Mr Xi - are not party "princelings" with the advantage of high-ranking parents.
It has produced some of the country's top leaders, including Mr Xi's presidential predecessor Hu Jintao as well as Mr Li, and its alumni are seen as a leading faction within the Communist party.
But as Mr Xi moves to consolidate power, the group has come under sustained attack, including direct reprimands from the president himself.
The party's internal corruption watchdog, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), this week took the group to task for losing sight of its core mission to guide young people's ideological development.
On its website, the CCDI published an extensive self-criticism by the CYL's central committee, acknowledging that it must have a greater "sense of responsibility and mission" to the party leadership and the country's young people.
The declaration came after an investigation into the CYL found evidence of embezzlement and influence-peddling, according to the Global Times newspaper, which is close to the ruling party.
The CCDI is headed by Wang Qishan, widely considered to be Mr Xi's top lieutenant.
Analysts say that the charges, although likely legitimate, may also be a convenient cover for the CCDI's real goal: helping Mr Xi jockey for position ahead of next year's 19th Party Congress, which will decide the new line-up for the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the top organ of political power in China.
"To investigate the CYL is a highly political endeavour," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.
"This operation will certainly contribute to consolidating Xi's position."
Five of the current seven PSC members are expected to retire at the Congress, and many experts believe Mr Xi and Mr Li are locked in a struggle to fill the vacancies with their own supporters, not to mention protect their own positions.
"All indications are that Xi Jinping is trying to reduce the influence of the Youth League" ahead of the event, China expert Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told AFP.
The head of state sees the group "as a political threat", Mr Lam said, adding that in the future the CYL "will be concerned with promoting ideology and political correctness among young people and no longer serve a function as a talent bank".
The CYL was formed in 1920 to promote Communist ideology to youth between the ages of 14 and 28, and has historically generally been more reformist than conservative. It had more than 88 million members in 2013 according to the ruling party's official mouthpiece the People's Daily, making it around the same size as the party itself.
Chinese elite politics are notoriously opaque, with experts and analysts picking over the smallest details of the leadership's activities - from minute variations in public language to seating arrangements at official ceremonies - for hints to the future.
The CYL's tea leaves, by contrast, have been unusually clear, with the group suffering a seemingly constant stream of attacks in recent months.
Mr Xi himself criticised it last July, blasting its leaders for being too "aristocratic", despite his own descent from so-called "red nobility" - his father Xi Zhongcun was a Communist military leader and later senior official.
In February, the CCDI, according to the official Xinhua news service, slammed the CYL for falling out of step with the party leadership, saying it had "not studied the spirit of the CPC's conference on improving mass organisations".
In the CYL's statement Monday, its leaders pledged to "deeply study and grasp the spirit of Party Secretary Xi Jinping's major speeches", noting that the group could only hope to achieve reform by improving its understanding of the president's teachings.
Even so there is no sign of a let-up in the assault.
The Global Times reported on Thursday that following the CCDI report the CYL plans to issue a "detailed plan" for its own reform.
Mr Xi's position is clear, said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University.
"His view on what function the CYL should play is definitely not the same as previous leaders," he told AFP. "There is a conflict."