Some mainland media outlets appear to be drawing links between relatives of former public security tsar Zhou Yongkang and the subjects of corruption investigations involving his former powerbases in Sichuan and the state petroleum industry.
The stories, which have appeared in some of the mainland's major business news publications, have detailed a web of lucrative business relationships involving the state oil giant and people believed to be members of Zhou's family.
The reports steered clear of any direct connection between the probes into China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Zhou, who, as a retired member of the Politburo's supreme Standing Committee, is among the Communist Party's most important figures.
Instead, they have mentioned the names without explanation or referred cryptically to business relationships involving CNPC subsidiaries and beneficiaries "surnamed Zhou".
But the mere presence of the stories is being seen as further evidence that anti-graft watchdogs have him in their sights.
The South China Morning Post reported last month that top party leaders decided at their high-level Beidaihe meetings to allow an unprecedented corruption investigation into Zhou.
A former member of the Standing Committee has never been the target of such a probe, let alone one who oversaw public security for much of the last decade.
"The mainland media are heavily censored and cannot report the investigation of Zhou," said a deputy editor with an influential media outlet in Beijing. "What we can do is to report the surroundings and to draw a line that might link back to him."
Mainland media reports linking people named Zhou to investigation targets began appearing after the September 1 detention of Zhou protégé and former CNPC chairman Jiang Jiemin .
The detention was the most high-profile in a series of corruption investigations involving former aides and associates of Zhou in the CNPC and Sichuan, where Zhou held top positions for nearly two decades.
One report by the 21st Century Business Herald described how an oil company controlled by CNPC, the Sichuan Huayou Group, transferred its exploration and mining rights in a potash mine for the suspiciously low price of three million yuan (HK$3.8 million) to a joint venture in 2007. The mine was later valued at 715 million yuan.
The joint-venture recipient was in turn controlled by Beijing Honghan Investment, which is now led by a 62-year-old woman named Zhou Lingying.
She is believed to be Zhou Yongkang's sister, according to investigations by the Post.
The woman listed as the company's chairwoman hails from Wuxi , Jiangsu province, Zhou Yongkang's hometown, according to documents reviewed by the Post.
Also, Zong Longxi, a lawyer from Jiangsu province who said he handled a business transaction for a woman by the same name, said that his client was Zhou Yongkang's sister. He declined to give further information.
Family members of high-ranking mainland officials have been known to use aliases, middlemen and layers of subsidiaries to conceal their financial holdings or identities.
Similarly, a series of reports in financial magazines Caijing and Caixin detailed how a 37-year-old Beijing man named Zhou Bin was the recipient of a 16 million yuan stock transfer in 2009 from a Beijing-based information technologies company with major CNPC contracts. Zhou Bin's name appears to match that of Zhou Yongkang's son.
The two names have an identical pinyin spelling, although the magazines used a different Chinese character for the man's given name.
The company, Zhongxu Yangguang Energy and Technology, is controlled by Wu Bing , a Sichuan businessman who owes much of his business to the state-run energy industry, including contracts to oversee the establishment of nearly half of CNPC's filling stations nationwide.
Wu, who was also chairman of the Hong Kong-registered Zhongxu Limited, is believed to be a close friend of Zhou's son.
Zhongxu Yangguang's shareholder, Zhang Ming, did not respond to calls for comment. Zhou Bin could not be reached for comment.