The investigation into Zhou Yongkang has officially begun. Which is to say that the investigation into Zhou Yongkang has actually concluded. What has begun is the choreography around his appearance before people imitating judges, his conviction and his sentence. And what we'll be looking for from all this is some clue as to what the next stage will be. There's an emerging consensus that this clears the decks for major economic reforms in a market-friendly direction. We'll see, but the problem here is that this framing presents a temptation for people to start speculating along the lines of 'at last, Beijing is free to do what I want it to do!' and fill in the details accordingly. While Zhou's takedown clearly contributes to the overall authority of the Xi dispensation in many areas, it's always worth remembering at this point that Zhou, while responsible for overall regime security, seems to have been running a large organised crime family within the higher reaches of the Party, and that this is worth dealing with for it's own sake.
Watching the saga unroll this afternoon I was impressed by how well China's resurrection of the classic Leninist show trial fits in with the multi and social media age. It seems to be a matter of structure, of the unrolling of infographic friendly nuggets of information which slot easily into continuous news cycles while providing endless opportunities for specialist punditry. I've profited modestly from this myself. We all know the media beast needs to be fed. Orthodox Leninist investigative practice can be a very effective way of feeding it, precisely because of the basic predictability of the way in which events are made to unfurl.
Conventionally, the trial should provide a staisfying climax - the event that defines the process - and here Xi and his fellow Leninists let us down. Bukharin wasn't tried, Slansky wasn't tried, Bo Xilai wasn't tried, and Zhou Yongkang isn't going to be tried either. He's going to be disposed of, like the rest of them. Everybody knows this, but I bet every hack in China will be trying to get to whichever third tier city the authorities use to bring down the curtain. While there, they will complain that the proceedings make a mockery of that whole rule of law thing. Well, sure: so why go? Why bother? The whole thing will be the very definition of the caravan moving on, so why bark like the dogs?
A modest suggestion for the relevant organs. Since everybody knows that this is not an investigation and it will not end in a trial, why not structure it as something more engaging, like, say, the last scene in Sunset Boulevard? Have Zhou emerge at the top of the staircase...I'm ready for my close up, Comrade Xi...It's not me, it's the Communist Party that got small...
Or something like that.