Tiger-hunting, Season 2

The new administration of President Xi is known for being communications savvy. Previous social media stunts, including the “surprise visit” to a dumpling place in Beijing and the mysteriously viral animation introducing the Chinese political system, all mark an important departure from the Party’s rigid, hard-sell style of official communications.

But this week, the Central Disciplinary Committee makes people wonder if the administration went too far in the riddle-laden playfulness of its anti-corruption campaign, by releasing an article on its official website lambasting a corrupt Qing Dynasty prince regent who died more than a hundred years ago.

Ever since the President declared that the campaign would spare “no tigers or flies”, many have fallen prey of the anti-corruption apparatus. These include a former Politburo Standing Committee member, a deputy chairman of the Central Military Committee and former President Hu Jingtao’s chief of staff. All “big tigers.”

Observers have summarized the communications “ritual” of the “hunting” process after Zhou Yongkang’s downfall: first, government-controlled media release peripheral information, then they allow rumors to spread on social media without much hindrance, so that the public is fully psychologically prepared when the official news comes out. No surprise or wild speculations.

Such a sophisticated manner to “massage” the public psyche to avoid destabilizing speculations has won the President and his anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan (who was said to be a big fan of Netflix’s House of Cards) admiration for their abilities to have things under control. Therefore, it is no surprise that when the Feb 26 article appeared on-line, the public was automatically cued to ask: is the next tiger already within the hunter’s range?

Some immediately tried to decipher the code through the name of the accused prince regent. As he’s dubbed “Prince Regent Qing”, was this an allusion to someone who may also has that character in his name? Clever netizens were virtually giggling when they thought they had identified the alluded figure, former Politburo Standing Committee member Zeng QINGhong, who was said to be closely associated with the disgraced Zhou Yongkang. But phonetics seems to be too cheap a trick that the Committee could play. More learned commentators dug deeper into the article and summarized interesting facts about the Prince Regent: He was a prime minister, and a favorite of his boss (the country’s de-factor ruler, Empress Dowager Cixi); He deposited a considerable asset in foreign banks and even the Western media at that time considered it disgraceful; he was good at handling scandals, and was able to come out of big scandals bruiseless; He was keen in cultivating his patronage circles. These clues led netizens to believe that the article might be targeted at some other heavy-weights, say a former Prime Minister.

But could the enthusiastic observers be over-interpreting that article? There is at least some evidence that the article might be just part of a routine effort to educate the Chinese officialdom using historical anecdotes. For a moment, observers might have mistaken the author, a Mr. Xi Hua, for a pseudonym representing the President’s team. After all, hiding behind pseudonyms to attack political rivals has been a political tactic since as early as the Cultural Revolution. But a few mouse clicks reveals that Xi Hua is an actual person who just happens to share the same surname with the President. As a mid-level official who worked within the Party Disciplinary system, Xi Hua has a reputation for writing about corruption-related stories of the Ming and Qing dynasties, apparently using his leisure time. His talent has attracted high level recognition, which might be attributed for his article’s appearance on the Central Disciplinary Committee’s official website.

There are people who don’t buy that this is just another random educational article. “(Wang Qishan) never plays random. The fact that the Committee has released such an article means that Zeng has already been “locked on”. Now it’s time for some public opinion warming up.”

Official media determined to be elusive. Xiake Island, a Wechat account run by the International Edition of People’s Daily, published a “cute” article pretending that the editor was interviewing the Prince Regent face-to-face. In the interview, the Prince Regent defended himself against the accusations made by Mr. Xi Hua using somewhat flawed arguments. The intention of this interview? Nobody knows.

Finally there are those who are tired of the hunter’s game. “Wasn’t Prince Regent Qing’s accumulation of power and wealth the result of the Empress Dowager’s favoritism and the political system of that time? The relevance of his personal dispositions almost had nothing to do with it,” said one disillusioned commentator.

Another tried to come to term with the Committee’s riddle with an allegory, “The great writer Lu Xun once described the wickedness of a cat. After it caught a mouse, it did not devour it immediately but teased it until it exhausted to near death. And now it wants us to guess who the mouse is.”

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