Tea Leaf Nation

Is 'Master Kang' Going Down?

Netizens speculate on the downfall of feared former security czar Zhou Yongkang.

He's been compared to a favorite Chinese snack, called a "great tiger," and referred to by the vague-sounding appellation Mister Kang. What he isn't called, at least on the censored Chinese social web, is his name: Zhou Yongkang.

The hated former head of his country's massive state security apparatus, and until recently one of the most powerful men in China, Zhou may now be in a lot of trouble: On Dec. 11, Reuters reported that he had been placed under virtual house arrest; earlier this month, the news service reported his son Zhou Bin had been helping with a corruption investigation, possibly against his father. While the story hasn't been officially confirmed, it seems very likely that Zhou, who hasn't been seen in public since October, is under suspicion. If Zhou falls, it will be one of the biggest purges since the Communist Party took power in 1949, with farther-reaching consequences than the 2012 unraveling of former Chongqing Party Boss Bo Xilai.

But officially, at least, Zhou is still a respected former top official, and even speculating about his downfall online could have consequences. Amid such restrictions, a small group of enterprising Chinese netizens have resorted to inventive turns of phrase to discuss Zhou's increasingly shaky situation. Referring to Zhou as "Master Kang," a popular brand of instant noodles, has been a favorite trope since at least early 2012 -- it also harks back to fearsome former security chief Kang Sheng -- without tipping off censors. Zhou's also occasionally called "Mister Kang," or Kang Yongzhou, which merely rearranges characters in his name, but also occasionally gets through the censors.

Users of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, got a new arrow in their quiver on Dec. 8 when North Korea's Communist Party confirmed it had engineered a purge of its own, expelling Jang Song-thaek, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's uncle, and, until recently, one of the country's most powerful men. Chinese state media widely reported Jang's ouster, allegedly for crimes including leading a "dissolute and depraved" life. This provided an opening for netizens keen to invoke Zhou. One user wrote, "Jang Song-thaek = instant noodles; does anyone get me?" When another wrote that "I opened Weibo and all I see is Kim Fatty the Third [a derisive moniker for Kim Jong-un] and Jang Song-thaek," a follower responded: "The instant noodles have not all been eaten yet." Some of the talk hints that Zhou's possible ouster would be seen as an historic development by China's citizens, not just Western observers. "Master Kang?" one netizen wrote, President Xi Jinping "is really playing big this time."

There's little or no predictive value to the musings of a few netizens in the hushed corners of the Chinese web; if anything, the paucity of chatter reflects just how successful Chinese censors have been in eliminating Zhou-related discussion from the public sphere. On the carefully scrubbed side of China's bustling Internet, there are few, if any signs that Zhou is in trouble. On Baidu, China's Google equivalent, a search for "Zhou Yongkang" elicits a spate of officially-sanctioned bios. On Weibo, the same query calls forth the infamous reply associated with many searches for the names of Chinese leaders: Results cannot be displayed, the site warns, "according to relevant rules and regulations." A Baidu search for "Zhou Yongkang" and the word "investigation" yields no hint he may himself be a target. Instead, it brings up a 2010 Zhou quote, ominous for some of the Chinese reading it, and perhaps equally so for the man himself: "If you feel safe," he said, "then I can relax."

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Good Soldiers No More

Will a viral video of brutal hazing undermine domestic trust in China's military?

Shocking violence, caught on tape, has shown many Chinese a darker side of their peacetime military. On Dec. 9, the website of liberal outlet Beijing News posted a video of violent hazing among soldiers based in the small inland city of Wuhai in Inner Mongolia. As the clip spread online and climbed to become the top search item on Baidu, China's largest search engine, many viewers remarked that the men caught on camera belied the protective, even benevolent image of the armed forces so often promoted in official media.

In the 15-minute video, shirtless soldiers in camouflage pants assault young men who stand at attention until they are knocked down -- then resume their position to endure more beatings as soon as their attackers retreat. At different points in the troubling clip, one aggressor repeatedly bangs a new soldier's head against a wall; another hits a recruit with a wooden stick until it breaks; several soldiers whip the men with belts. Interspersed with the abuse are eerily tender moments: One assailant dabs blood from a victim's face with a handkerchief, while another pats the man he has beaten reassuringly on the shoulder before resuming his attacks. Through its verified account on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, the Wuhai Municipal Firefighters Division confirmed the veracity of the video, which it dated to June 2012, and announced that those responsible for the beatings had been suspended and awaited investigation. 

The video went viral online partly because the soldiers shown were part of a firefighting branch of the People's Armed Police, China's domestic military. One Weibo user lamented that "we are relying on this group of hooligans to protect our homes and country." Another asked, "What use is it to have people who are this cruel to their own compatriots?" State media has long described military personnel as "the most lovable people." But after watching the video, one viewer wrote that the clip "has made me see these 'most loveable people' in a completely new light." Likely because of the vociferous online reaction, the clip disappeared from Sina, a major Internet portal, and Weibo users complained that many of their comments about the video, which numbered in the tens of thousands, had met the same fate.  

A handful of web commenters users defended the breaking in of new soldiers as "an open secret" in militaries around the world, including U.S. forces, where hazing has survived under the moniker "corrective training." One Chinese web commenter echoed that rhetoric, labeling the Wuhai abuse a form of "training," while another called hazing a "longstanding" practice in the armed services. But most Chinese commenters felt that the violence in Inner Mongolia had crossed the line. One Weibo user wrote that hazing might make the soldiers tougher, but it would not make them better: "If this is how they learn, they'll end up bullying ordinary people in the same way."

Fair Use/Youtube