There was glee in the wake of China's official confirmation of an investigation into Zhou Yongkang, once one of the country's most powerful men. On the Internet, where discussion of his downfall was heavily censored until the investigation was confirmed by state media Tuesday evening, a flood of giddy talk came rushing forward.
"Great job, Xi Jinping!!!" wrote one user on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media sites. "A serious penalty against corruption! What good fortune for the country!" wrote another. (The coincidence with World Wildlife Fund's International Tiger Day Tuesday added to the fun, as China's leadership has called its biggest corruption quarry, like Mr. Zhou, "tigers.")
More cheering came from the country's state press, with the Xinhua news agency, in a self-congratulatory commentary, saying the investigation "has revealed the courage and resolution of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to purify itself and run itself with strict discipline." It said 40 high-ranking officials have been dragged down on corruption and other serious charges since November, 2012, when President Xi Jinping took the reins of the Communist Party.
"Before the Party discipline, all members are equal and nobody will be made an exception," Xinhua boasted.
Even though the specific charges against Mr. Zhou are not yet public – he has been the target of a longstanding corruption probe, but officially he is under investigation for "serious disciplinary violation" – the online commentary underscored the mastery President Xi Jinping has shown in manipulating public opinion.
There is a danger implicit in China's Communist Party unmasking the wrongdoing of one of its most senior members, since it is an acknowledgment that there is rot throughout the ranks of the party's 86 million members.
"They have to modulate this extremely artfully so that it doesn't bit them, because to expose that the party is so ridden with this cancer, which they've sort of done, it could undermine the authority of the party and the credibility of the party. So they're on a very high wire here," said Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the New York-based Asia Society.
But Mr. Xi has sought – in part through calibrated public appearances that have seen him dine at a low-brow restaurant and walk about in bad smog without a mask – to cast himself as a man on the side of the people. "He is trying to re-craft a very much more robust notion of strong personal central leadership that really guides, not follows, the [Politburo] Standing Committee," Mr. Schell said.
That skill that has served him well in the campaign against Mr. Zhou, who is believed to have overseen a corrupt network of friends, family and proteges that amassed billions of dollars worth of illicit gains.
"The message that no one is above the law, not even top Party elites, is designed to assuage some of the anger that regular people feel" toward official corruption, said Jonathan Sullivan, deputy director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. Mr. Xi still holds tight control of information on the Internet, which will allow the party to keep the most salacious details far from public view.
That will allow Mr. Zhou's fall to "be spun to the Party's advantage," Mr. Sullivan said. "Although Mr. Xi's pursuit of Mr. Zhou is partly politically motivated, bringing down this behemoth and nearly 500 of his associates is an incredible play for public approval."
That's not to say that Mr. Xi's anti-corruption campaign hasn't exposed him to certain risks, particularly inside his own party. Alienate too many party members by cutting off their access to luxury goods and the lucrative perks of membership, and there is a chance they will gang up against you.
"Those people involved in corruption are threatened by this kind of action from the top leaders, and they may form some kind of force to fight back," said Li Xigen, an associate professor of media and communication at City University of Hong Kong.
The stakes flashed into public view this spring, when former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin both reportedly warned Mr. Xi not to take his anti-corruption campaign too far, for fear of destabilizing the party. Internal disagreements may also explain the length of time it took for the investigation against Mr. Zhou to be announced, nearly 10 months after he was placed under virtual house arrest.
But Mr. Xi seems to be betting that he can outrun internal opposition by getting the public on his side, even if the fight against corruption is often a simple mask for a bid to weed out political rivals – a distinction that is often lost on the public, or merely disregarded. As rumours swirled about even bigger figures in the corruption crosshairs, with talk about Mr. Zemin censored on social media Wednesday amid speculation he too faces scrutiny, The Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, suggested the tiger hunt was not over.
"The campaign will definitely be deepened with no limit in levels or numbers, especially in fields including energy, land, major construction and civil affairs," the paper cited a source close to the anti-graft campaign as saying.
Still, the campaign is unlikely to continue in perpetuity, given how widespread corruption is inside the Communist Party. "They can't go too far. They will cut everything away," Mr. Schell said. "If they start excising every piece of cancerous tissue, they'll kill the organism."