BEIJING (Reuters) - “Big Tiger” is gone. “Master Kang” has disappeared.
The various euphemisms Chinese media have used to describe a once powerful domestic security tsar are no longer necessary, after the Communist Party announced on Tuesday that it had launched a corruption investigation into Zhou Yongkang.
Confirmation of what was long known has proved a kind of catharsis for journalists, who have had to strike a balance between publishing thinly veiled reports about the sensational case and sticking to China’s censorship rules.
Although journalists have leeway to publish critical reports on crime, the environment and business practices, independent reporting on the activities of central government and Communist Party leaders is usually off limits.
That did not stop the bolder Chinese newspapers and magazines from reporting in some detail on Zhou and his allies, while the censors, in many cases, were happy to look away.
Newspapers and those using social media often got around restrictions by calling Zhou “Master Kang” - a popular brand of instant noodles that shares a character with his given name.
The “tiger” reference comes from President Xi Jinping, who has vowed to target lowly “flies” as well as high-ranking “tigers” in his sweeping anti-corruption campaign.
Such references are instantly recognizable to many readers in China, where internet users have proved adept at crafting their own nicknames and other shorthand to communicate what censors will not allow to be spelled out.
Zhou is by far the highest-profile leader to be ensnared in Xi’s crackdown and the most senior Chinese official to be ousted in a graft scandal since the ruling Communist Party came to power in 1949.
Last seen at an alumni celebration at the China University of Petroleum on Oct. 1, he could not be reached for comment. It was not clear if he has a lawyer.
Dozens of Zhou allies have been implicated in the scandal in recent months, and several senior government officials were placed under formal investigation.
In a country where journalists must tread carefully, two words uttered by a government spokesman in March opened the door to reporting more deeply on Zhou’s case.
A reporter from the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post raised the question of Zhou’s status with a government spokesman at a press conference at the start of China’s annual parliamentary session.
Reuters reported in March that Chinese authorities had seized assets worth at least 90 billion yuan ($14.56 billion) from family members and associates of Zhou.
“Actually, I‘m just like you, I’ve gotten information from some media reports,” the spokesman responded with a nervous grin, saying that corrupt officials would be punished regardless of their status or position.
“I can only say that much,” he added. “You understand.”
The phrase “you understand” was taken by Chinese media as a signal that censors might tolerate deeper reporting of the Zhou case, analysts said.
“After he uttered that phrase - ‘you understand’ - it could be felt that this very old news would ultimately be made public,” said Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“Certain specialized media could report on it to some extent, but it was still guided by the official line.”
Chinese state media has made little or no mention of the power struggle that lay behind Zhou’s fall or the elite politics underlying the case, indicating there are still no-go areas for the domestic press.
But financial news magazine Caixin had reported extensively on the activities of Zhou acolytes, including his son Zhou Bin.
In an effort to evade punishment from censors, it used a different character with a similar pronunciation for the younger Zhou’s given name. It also did not spell out that Zhou Bin was Zhou Yongkang’s son.
Many outlets, including popular news portal Sina, published infographics earlier this month depicting headshots of Zhou’s felled allies in a spider’s web, with arrows pointing to a silhouette at the center.
The silhouette was labeled “you understand.”
On Tuesday evening, 30 minutes after the investigation was announced, Sina published another web graphic of his political ties, this time with a picture of a frowning Zhou in the middle.
Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan, additional reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Mike Collett-White