For a good whole year, people in and outside of China have been waiting for the shoe to drop on the fate of Zhou Yongkang, China’s retired security chief who was a member of the 17th Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s highest decision-making body.
Yesterday the cloak was finally lifted: China has launched a formal investigation into Zhou’s “serious disciplinary violations”, breaking the unwritten rule of highest-ranking officials’ immunity.
Some hailed the announcement as a milestone victory of Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Some speculated that this might be the beginning of a deeper war against corruption. As outside observers, we may never know which direction the wind will blow from here, but the Chinese people, who take great pride in their language, never shy away from reading between the lines.
Since the end of last year, several Chinese media have periodically spilt out one or two reports on the corruption cases of Zhou’s family members or associates, but they managed to do so by not mentioning his name even once. For a very long time, Zhou was practically China’s Lord Voldemort, the “You know who.” Even in reports on the illegal business practices of his son Zhou Bin, he was referred to as “the father of Zhou Bin.”
Zhou YongKang remained a censored word on the Chinese Internet until yesterday. This intentional ambiguity gives rise to rumors, or, permitted rumors, if you will. He was often referred to as “Master Kang” which is a popular brand of instant noodles in China, or sometimes simply “Noodles.” More recently, he was also called “Zhou tiger,” referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption vow to fight “both tigers and flies.” In other occasions, he was just “You know who.”
The taboo to utter his name was broken yesterday. The announcement of his investigation went viral almost instantly. All of a sudden, his name was everywhere, from infographics of his “evil network”, photo essays of his frowning faces, to lengthy reports on his rise and fall. There is no question that Chinese journalists have been waiting for the signal to let loose their stock of negative Zhou press. “The noodles are finally done.” As many Chinese netizens commented.
Those with careful eyes caught that he was simply referred to as “Zhou Yongkang”, instead of “comrade Zhou Yongkang” in the investigation announcement. What’s the big deal? Well…As one of the not many communist legacies left in China, comrade is still a commonly used word by state media to refer to Party members. Calling someone comrade means that he or she is still more or less “one of us.” Even Bo Xilai, ousted politician who has been sentenced to life, was granted the status of “comrade.” But Zhou is only Zhou. The non-comrade status could very possibly mean that there will be no mercy or room for negotiation.
But interpreting China’s official announcements can be as confusing as reading tea leaves. A thousand people may reach a thousand different conclusions. In addition to the absence of comrade, people also noticed the use of “examination (审查)”, instead of “investigation (调查)”, in the announcement. Many speculated that the use of “examination” implies that the fall of Zhou is the grand season finale – no more “investigation” or “digging” to drag in more officials.
To many China observers, this may be a historical moment of the fall of a political titan in China, but to the average Chinese, it’s probably nothing more than a “House of Cards” reality show that is capably of feeding gossips non-stop. “The fall of such a big tiger has nothing to do with an ordinary people like me, but I’d still love to see how it ends.” One netizen commented.