Tea Leaf Nation

Is ‘Master Kang’ Going Down?

Is ‘Master Kang’ Going Down?

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."