The Master

Wanglin

The women were screaming with excitement. The half-naked man was teasing them with a snake, trying to hang it on one woman’s neck. After being prodded by her companions, the woman obliged and happily took a photo together with the man. The snakes were magically summoned by the man from under an enamel basin that was supposed to be empty inside. Before he did that, he stripped off his tie and shirt just to prove that he did not hide anything underneath his clothing. In another scene, the camera shows him feeding liquor to the same group of well-dressed men and women. The liquor came out of nowhere into the cups that he was holding in his hands. It appears that he was able to fill the cups endlessly. A few faces cringed when fed the alcohol but played along obediently. Everybody was laughing and clapping hands profusely.

This is a home party from the 1990s captured on a video. It looks like the video was prepared for the eyes of Communist Party cadres only (with the words “internal reference” at the beginning). The purpose, according to the preamble to the video, was to open their eyes to “human body science” and its mysterious wonders. The half-naked man is called Wang Lin (“the Master”), at that time a lecturer at a Jiangxi province cadre training school. For the past two years, his story has provided the Chinese public a rare chance to peep into the secret social lives of China’s ruling elites.

The latest public interest in Wang has been triggered by a murder case. On Jul 16, news broke out that a Jiangxi province businessman called Zou Yong was kidnapped and murdered, his body thrown into the Poyang Lake. Zou used to be Wang Lin’s “apprentice” but fell disillusioned with the Master after two years of “practicing”. The break-up of the apprenticeship turned out to be nasty, with both suing each other for embezzlement. The cases are still pending final ruling from the court. Yet Zou will not have the chance to see them through. On the night of Jul 15, Wang was arrested by police along with several others who accompanied him. He was suspected to be involved in Zou’s death.

Murder. That is the latest charge against the Master after he was brought into national spotlight in 2013. Illegal medication and owning guns are two of the others. Many of these charges exist because of Zou’s relentless reporting to the police and press. But the authority has never been able to pin down any real evidence of Wang involved in such activities. He proved too elusive and mysterious for investigators. More importantly, he seemed to be “protected” somehow by a web of benefactors that he has cultivated over the years. His admirers and acquaintances include central government Ministers, chairmen of powerful political bodies and top notch celebrities. It was the 2013 visit by Jack Ma, Jet Lee and A-list actress Zhao Wei to his “castle” in Jiangxi province that aroused tremendous interest from the public in this previously unheard of Master, which unleashed a wave of probing media attention that ultimately proved damaging for Wang.

The latest murder charge transforms those elites’ entanglement with Wang Lin from a mere embarrassment to something much darker. One commentator calls the Wang Lin phenomenon “the darkest metaphor of the Chinese elite circles.” Through him, “we can see how stupid and decadent this country’s 1% really are.” In another widely circulated commentary that is said to be from novelist Wang Shuo, those elites are described as “low IQ, insecure, lack of scientific common sense, and have no sense of responsibility”. For those ordinary Chinese who can feel inequality and unfairness at every turn of their daily life, seeing the country’s richest and most powerful flocking to pay tribute to someone who is so apparently a hoax gives them an outlet to vent their despise. “For most middle class Chinese, a doctoral mortarboard and a decent downtown apartment means a life time’s achievement. Yet for the power wielding elites, the middle class is just a bunch of boring monkeys. Only an ‘interesting’ person like Wang Lin can raise their heavy eye lids.”

The celebrities in show business took the heaviest hits, as they often embody quick money and brainless ignorance. Star singer Faye Wong was particularly picked at, not only because she and her (former) husband seem to have paid the Master more than one visits, but also for the fact that she has been spearheading a kind of life style that glamorizes “alternative” spiritual experiences. With a public image of being ultra-cool and aloof, she was often seen kowtowing to Buddhist monks and frequenting Taoist temples. Some of the “Masters” she visited were later found to be nothing more than swindlers and were sent to jail. Commentators blame Faye Wong for helping popularize a kind of hypocritically self-contradictory personality within the society that becomes a fertile ground for the Wang Lins:  “On the one hand, they worship religious creeds that advocate detachment from secular, materialistic pursuits, while on the other hand they closely monitor their assets in the stock market.”

The elites are not without their defenders. Apparently disturbed by the above attacks, established business writer Wu Xiaobo wrote a piece arguing that those who paid tribute to Wang Lin do not deserve such searing criticism. They are probably “just curious about the secrets of life”, as Albert Einstein said “the best thing we can experience is mystery, as it’s the source of all arts and sciences.” Comparing Chinese billionaires’ visit to a magician and murder suspect to Albert Einstein’s pursuit of the ultimate truth of the universe is more than the Chinese society could stomach. As expected the article met with unforgiving ridicule on-line, and Wu’s reputation as a respected business writer is likely to be irrevocably tarnished. But in his article he also points the “Wang Lin phenomenon” to its historical origin, which helps shed light on the deep currents that propelled Wang’s emergence in the first place. In the late 1980s, a “Chi-gong Fever” swept across the country, largely thanks to the sudden interest in “paranormal phenomena ” from a few high level leaders and established scientists such as Qian Xuesen, the father of Chinese rocket science. Their support and patronization produced all kinds of government sponsored “research” and absorption of magician-type drifters such as Wang Lin into the official system. In bringing up this history, Wu tries to argue that the elites’ curiosity in Wang Lin has certain legitimacy. But inadvertently, he reminds people of the deep-rooted irrationality of the Chinese political elites.

For some observers, the debate about whether those elites are stupid completely misses the point. Of course they know these are just magic tricks, the argument goes. They just play along because what they treasure is not the SUPERNATURAL power of Wang Lin but the NATURAL power that he is able to bring them. It refers to his other identity as one of China’s first-class power broker. The “home parties” at which he performs his “repertoire” are just excuses to hold low-profile, exclusive gatherings for those who use such occasions to exchange resources. It is reported that he introduced Zou Yong (his now dead apprentice) to China’s then Railway Minister Liu Zhijun (who was later sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges) and secured Zou a deal worth a billion RMB. He also used his network to help a high level Guangdong official to get pass “turbulences” caused by damaging corruption allegations, which won the unwavering allegiance of that official (who kneeled in front of Wang to thank him, but later fell victim to the new administration’s anti-corruption campaign).

If the likes of Jack Ma are truly just knowingly “playing along”, which seems to be a more plausible  explanation of their behavior, then what the Wang Lin saga demonstrates is not the elites’ stupidity and ignorance but rather their spectacular cynicism. These are the smartest guys in our room. Their readiness to entertain and bow their heads to a snake magician is an allegory of power’s erosive effect on reason and human dignity.

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What It Means to be a Polluting Company that Has Lost Its Powerful Patron

When China’s former “Security Tsar”, Zhou Yongkang, went on trial days ago, I was intently watching the development of another story, the pollution caused by a lead and zinc mine in southwestern China’s Yunnan province that intoxicated an entire village’s children.

The two stories are only remotely connected, on the surface. The mine belongs to a company once controlled by Liu Han, the billionaire whose expansive business empire stretched from real estates to electricity and mining. In 2013, Liu and his brother were charged with 15 accounts of crimes ranging from murder to leading “mafia-type organizations”. They were sentenced to death and were both executed months later. Their rise and fall coincided with the political tides of Szechuan province, the southwestern power base of Zhou Yongkang and his son, Zhou Bin. By pleasing Zhou Bin, the Liu brothers secured their much needed political protection from Zhou Yongkang and his numerous protégés who occupied commanding positions in the top echelon of the Szechuan provincial leadership. The ultimate collapse of that entire layer of protection under the unbearable weight of the anti-corruption campaign of the Xi administration in the end exposed the Lius to fatal radiations of a super nova, costing them their lives.

In a country saturated by pollution stories and depressing accounts of their hapless victims, another one that involves the usual suspect of a major mining company and a small, helpless village could easily have been ignored. But this time, the intriguing alchemy of corruption and the environment produced something slightly different with a unique potency that had not been seen before in the environmental field.

A veteran reporter of contemporary Chinese politics once noted that the extent to which damaging stories about a powerful person can spread in China’s public sphere had become a precise indicator of that person’s political fate. In other words, China’s censors, hiding inside an opaque web of information control machineries, collectively constitute a much faster and more sensitive “nerve system” that signals a person’s political fortune than the country’s judges, prosecutors or disciplinary bodies. Too often, the first crack of business empires, stellar reputations and solid political backing that once seem unshakable emerges when negative stories appear in the media uncensored. Failure to mobilize the country’s censors indicates one’s vulnerability and exposure (but of course this only applies to those who are SUPPOSED to be able to do that).

The Yunnan story vividly illustrates that vulnerability. The first wave of media reports treated it more or less as a regular pollution story, with bland titles that says “Asia’s largest lead and zinc mine causes pollution”. But more discerning outlets, such as the politically weathered Caijing Magazine, quickly jumped on the juicier elements: ownership of that mine and its historical ties with an entire group of fallen heavyweights (including Liu Han and former Yunnan provincial chief Bai Enpei). If it had been two years earlier, the story would have probably been killed right on the spot. But with censors no longer standby to guard those interests, the story travelled unabated. What followed resembles the daily “circle of life” on the African savanna. After the big carnivores such as Caijing had first spotted and feasted on the game, China’s website editors gathered en masse to finish off the carcass. Accustomed to playing the game of Catch Me If You Can with the censors, they won’t let go of any opportunities to maximize the viewership of their news posts, sometimes determined by time windows as short as several minutes. And to do that they have developed an acute sense for vulnerability. Not long after the Caijing story appeared, website editors quietly “retrofitted” the titles of the original stories to harness the sexier corruption angles, entertaining with wordings such as “ex-mafia-head” which drew more attention. The censors once again turned a blind eye to these changes.

Left entirely on its own, the company resorted to pathetic tricks that were often used by those of much more modest backgrounds: key word contamination. Just one day after the news broke in the Chinese media, a dubious piece of article started to emerge on numerous news organizations’ official websites that contained the exactly same key words as news reports from the previous day: “Asia’s largest lead and zinc mine,” “pollution”, and the company’s own name. Yet the actual content of the article was pure corporate PR, praising the company for its environmental efforts. It took advantage of sections of the news organizations’ websites that were on sale for such materials and camouflaged itself as a genuine news item. As a result, search engines such as Google and Baidu were tricked to pick it up as news, “diluting” the pool of information that contained the actual negative coverage.

In a weird way, the fall from power and privilege manifests itself in terms of “exposure containing methods”. No longer enjoying the “free” service of diligent state censors, those “orphaned” polluting companies are thrown into the “market” where they have to buy their way out of their own PR mess.

China’s Most Dangerous Woman Meets Her Most Dangerous Rival

HuShuli  Guowengui

The event of the week is roughly the Chinese equivalence of this: the Huffington Post carries an in-depth story revealing that Donald Trump has built his business empire with the help of corrupt high-level officials at the NSA, who used illegal surveillance methods to crush his business competitors. Trump shoots back with a tweet accusing Arianna Huffington of adultery with his main business competitor and using her website to smear his name for the sake of her lover. He even asserts that Huffington and the man has a son out of wedlock and published the kid’s Social Security Number.

Now, replace the Huffington Post with Caixin Weekly, Arianna Huffington with Hu Shuli, and Donald Trump with Guo Wengui, the billionaire who owns Beijing’s landmark Pangu Plaza, and you get the picture. But to fully comprehend what’s going on, you need to have the mind of a Frank Underwood.

Guo Wengui is a name that was unknown to most people in China until the end of 2014. At that time, a nasty dispute between him and the former CEO of the Beida Founder group regarding top management appointments escalated into a mutual tattling that led to the latter’s arrest a few weeks later. Guo remote-controlled the fight from abroad and had thence forth stayed outside of China. According to Chinese media reports, this fight was a prelude to the downfall of a Deputy National Security Minister, who was a mutual friend of both of them and had used his special power in the security apparatus (a department that deploys China’s secret police) to protect their business interests.

These events put this otherwise low-key billionaire under the spotlight and arouse the interest of daring investigative journalists, including Ms. Hu Shuli’s Caixin team.(See their coverage of Guo Wengui in English)

Caixin Weekly, a leading news magazine in China, is known for its in-depth coverage of the country’s most hefty political and economic issues. Hu Shuli, the founder of Caixin, is considered the “female Godfather” of Chinese journalism and “the most dangerous woman in China.” She treads the fine line between truth-finding and China’s boundaries for freedom of expression, a tricky business of which she is a master. Under her leadership, Caixin has become the go-to place for authoritative reporting of all aspects of the Chinese society. Some also believe that her success so far is in large part due to her personal connections well up to the highest echelon of the Chinese leadership, a network that she cultivated back in the early 90s when she was a reporter for one of China’s earliest business newspapers. One of those contacts is Wang Qishan, then a reform-minded party upstart, and now President Xi’s anti-corruption tsar. (See Evan Osnos’s 2009 profile of Hu for the New Yorker)

Over the past one year or two, along with the intensification of the administration’s anti-corruption campaign, Caixin’s exclusive coverage of those fallen under the campaign’s hammer and anvil has won it applause and also a bit of disdain. Those applauding consider Caixin the standard bearer of journalistic professionalism in China. Those questioning it muse about the extent to which it is being used by one faction of the party against another. Its now legendary coverage of Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest ranking official being charged so far, exemplifies these competing views. The report (an unprecedented full-volume coverage that amounts to a mini-biography) came out minutes after the official announcement of Zhou’s disgrace. On the one hand, the thoroughness of its investigations (a year-long process) immediately inspired a sense of awed respect among media observers all over the internet (later the lead journalists won awards for this report). But on the other hand, the seemingly unusual access enjoyed by Caixin journalists to sources surrounding one of China’s most sensitive political figures also brought questions regarding Caixin’s “special” role in the anti-corruption campaign.

Such mixed perceptions played out in a very big way last week, when Guo Wengui launched his nasty personal attack on Hu Shuli from abroad. The open letter he released through his company’s Weibo accounts (now deleted) asserts that Hu has ulterior motives in doing the investigative piece about him, namely to smear his name in order to benefit her “lover” the Founder group CEO currently under investigation. Furthermore, the letter goes sensual in detailing the “sexual relationship” between Hu and her lover, their “secret son” and even Hu’s sexual appetite. Besides that, he also accuses Hu of using her magazine as a tool to blackmail other enterprises in exchange of expensive advertisement contracts.

It is interesting that Guo picked Hu as his target, as Caixin was not the only media outlet that did investigative stories about him lately, nor the first to do so. Both Tencent’s Prism, a WeChat-based outlet for in-depth original stories, and Caijing Magazine did similar stories about Guo’s rise from a nobody in rural Shandong province to one of China’s richest business tycoons. All these stories depict Guo as a cunning, ruthless “street fighter” who builds up his wealth by crushing anybody in his way. He has torn down minister-level officials using secretly taped sex videos, and his partnership with high level officials in the national security apparatus was a key to his success.

Knowing Guo’s style, one probably would not be surprised by his move against Hu. After all, if his purpose is to stir up a controversy, Hu proves to be a more suitable target than lesser known journalists. And his tactic to play into voyeurism, the basest instinct on cyberspace, also seems to have paid off. Hu’s sympathizers were upset by how happily netizens are willing to spread the defamatory letter, even with stated “doubts”. Guo also tapped into another dark side of the Chinese cyberspace: its cynical attitude toward truth in general and the resulting disregard for the relative weight of evidence. In other words, many Chinese netizens tend to treat any given information with the same level of (dis)trust. Anything could be true or false, no matter what evidence you present. And this makes a fertile ground for character assassination. In 2012, a prolonged online campaign to discredit popular writer Han Han in effect pushed him out of debates on social affairs, even though the attackers produced no solid evidence to buttress their claims that all his previous writing was done by shadow writers. Hu’s supporters were quick to point out the outrageousness in Guo’s accusations, especially concerning she having a kid with the so-called lover. As a public figure constantly in the spotlight, it is pretty unfathomable that Hu could be pregnant at the age of 50 (based on the identity card information Guo disclosed of the “kid”) without catching the attention of the public. Many Hu’s defenders, among them are prominent editors and journalists, were disheartened by how gleefully even some media operatives spread this piece of junk.

But the apparent ridiculousness of Guo’s accusations led some observers to wonder if a distraction is actually all that he wants. If Guo is indeed a shark fish in China’s muddy water as the media have suggested, why did he present something that is so blatant a lie? Maybe he has a message to send to someone else, one commentator bemuses, and maybe his actual target is not Hu but the person behind her. He is sending a coded warning to her patrons in the leadership that he is in possession of damaging materials not of her, but of them.

This leads some observers into believing that this fight is just the surface of much fiercer power struggles deep underneath. And it is in a way linked to the above-mentioned perception of Hu as being somehow protected or even “fed” by much larger forces that are currently driving the anti-corruption campaign. There are also speculations about who is actually behind Guo. But no matter whether such conjectures are true, one effect of this Guo-Hu feud is the further perpetuation of the public perception that the anti-corruption campaign is merely a factional struggle for power. For the leadership, such a perception can be damaging, as it undermines the legitimacy and moral high ground that the campaign occupies. That’s why until very recently, official media outlets such as the pro-Xi WeChat account under the People’s Daily have been pointedly rebutting claims that the campaign is a selective purge of political rivals. They argue that the campaign has actually indicted Xi’s previous colleagues and subordinates in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, something that’s overlooked by the Western media, particularly the New York Times. But they never clarify whether the purge is of a different nature, where the line is not drawn along personal connections, but between those “born red” and the “hired hands”. (See Evan Osnos’s most recent article “Born Red” for more details) As long as such doubts are not quenched, the campaign may always be seen by cynical bystanders as a grandiose dog fight.

Hu Shuli never responded to the controversy directly[1]. Her stellar reputation within China’s media establishment ensures that plenty of journalistic heavy weights come to her defense voluntarily either out of personal affection or out of a sense of solidarity. On Mar 30, one day after Guo’s open letter appeared on the internet, she quietly posted on her own Weibo account the links to the original Caixin report, without a single word of comment, as if to say: let the report speaks for itself.

[1] Although Caixin the company did send out a statement on Mar 30 saying they were initiating legal actions against Guo’s company for libel.

For Party Propaganda, a “New Normal” Is in Play?

The air over the Great Hall of the People these days feels qualitatively different from a few years ago. If you’ve been in China long enough to remember the “twin sessions”[1] under the previous administration, you may be struck by the re-connection between what’s being discussed within the walls of the Great Hall and what’s being talked about on the street, concrete or cyber, today.

It wasn’t like this a few years ago, especially at sessions where there were no leadership changes. We Chinese call these sessions “small-year sessions” just to highlight the inconsequential nature of such gatherings of two rubber-stamp institutions. In those “good old days”, two distinctive conversations happened in parallel: the one within the Great Hall was stubbornly boring and hollow, the one outside was marked by smart-ass cynicism. The cleavage between the two was so wide that it can be seen from space. For many years what dominated media and internet spaces during such sessions had been so-called “silly proposals” (雷人提案) and pictures like this:

twinsessions

The shift to a new pattern happens like taking an airplane: you don’t feel too much when it takes off, but the next moment you look outside the window, you are 8 miles above ground.

It all started with the CPPCC opening press conference last year (can anyone still recollect one single CPPCC opening press conference under the Hu-Wen administration?). At that occasion, CPPCC spokesperson Lu Xinhua responded to a question about rumors concerning former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang by famously saying “you know what I mean”(你懂的), an expression popular on social media. This clever, delicate response to a question that people actually cared about marked that initial hand-shake between the two separate universes.

If in the future, books are to be written about this administration, its decisive re-invention of party propaganda should definitely be a key component of the bigger story. We can debate about whether it is a blessing or curse for the Chinese society. What’s indisputable is its formidable ability to focus and shape public opinion for its own purposes.

We’ve briefly addressed this topic in a previous post. But at the twin sessions this year, things get clearer for us to see how orchestrated a party-led PR campaign can be. Once again, Lu Xinhua plays forward for the team. Since the CPPCC session always opens first, his opening press conference occupies a unique spot that can set the tone for the coming two weeks. And he doesn’t disappoint. Resorting to yet another social media catch-phrase, this time he describes the party’s anti-corruption campaign as “capricious” (任性), and indicates that no one enjoys impunity. Such head-line-friendly sound-bites are almost like a reservation for newspaper and website front page spaces. Soon, they ushered in the actual dinner guests. Barely one hour had passed since Lu’s cute statement when the military’s leading website released information condemning fourteen high-level military officers on corruption charges. The national press corp struggled a bit in recognizing some of the obscure names (some even mistook one officer for a different person). But they did not fail to recognize Major General Guo Zhenggang, the son of a former deputy chairman of the Central Military Committee.  If we stick to the dinner metaphor, what happened next was a national feast on the bodies of the poor father and son. There are playful allusions as expected. But more prepared media outlets quickly handed out dense investigative pieces about the fallen general, his wife and their shadowy businesses. These articles appeared literally minutes after the official announcement, prompting some observers to complain half-jokingly that “I cannot write such an investigative piece in five minutes.” You know what I mean.

If this is fishery, whoever is behind this campaign is not baiting but rather bottom trawling public attention. Tai Kung Pao’s website is more explicit about what is going on: “In previous twin sessions, based on some kind of ‘stability” considerations, they would often try to deflect attention from any particular issue. But under the anti-corruption campaign of the current administration, they would rather warm-up the issue beforehand, then use the twin conference to stir up a focused and heated discussion, in order to align the thinking and consolidate the consensus.”

What’s more revealing is the fact that even when people talk about show business representatives this year, (celebrities such as Jackie Chan, who attend the sessions as “political advisers”), their focus is still on corruption. It used to be the case that these celebrities add “flavor” to a hopelessly dull meeting. Now they are fully integrated to an overarching grand narrative. Plenty of spotlight has been thrown on the fate of star comedian Huang Hong, who made his name from popular comedy sketches at the annual Spring Festival Galas.  As he sat inside the Great Hall this week, news came that he was dismissed as the head of the People’s Liberation Army Bayi Film Studio. It fueled speculations about his entanglement with fallen leaders of the military. The faded luster of former A-list singers such as Song Zuying and Tan Jing, both CPPCC members, also becomes a source of curious amusement. A brilliant treatise on-line ventures a theory linking the leadership’s new propaganda ambitions with the decline of previously treasured propaganda singers. It argues that:

“The top leader needs to establish his authority in a range of areas. He will not tolerate a long-time situation of crumbling party discipline and crass party art. Revitalizing the art and propaganda apparatus so that more political songs can be accepted by the general public is certainly part of his agenda.”

Until more evidence emerges from behind the scene, we can’t really tell if what we are seeing now is truly well-choreographed communication maneuvers or just events that coincidentally bumped into each other. A West-Wing-style comms team serving the current leadership might just be a fantasy. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the evolution of party propaganda into more sophisticated forms, sometimes unrecognizable as propaganda, is happening. The sleeping elephant is waking up and wants to reclaim the room now.

 

P.S. “Under the Dome” is now officially censored, even though the discussion about it is still lingering in a big way on the internet. Is it being seen as a distraction to the twin sessions? Only THEY will know.

[1] “Twin sessions” refers to the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) sessions, a two-week event stretching from early to mid-March every year.

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.”