When Xi Jinping finally replaces Hu Jintao next spring, a man who talked about making China a "moderately overall prosperous society" will be replaced by one who promises a "great renewal of the Chinese nation".
The first indications of what this might mean in practice came shortly after the 18th Communist Party Congress, which sealed Xi's coronation in early November. They involved a toad-faced cadre, a teenage mistress, a hidden camera and a honeytrap scheme by a corrupt property developer. It's a list that checks many boxes in an increasingly scandal-weary society.
Graphic video showing Lei Zhengfu, a district head in the city of Chongqing, entertaining his teenage mistress was leaked online the week after the Party Congress. Scandalous material of this sort is usually suppressed: but on this occasion the Party-state acted with unusual speed to investigate the affair. Lei was sacked a week later and is currently under investigation by CDIC, the Party's internal disciplinary force.
Then the floodgates opened. The weeks since the Lei scandal broke have seen the exposure of his Chongqing colleague Wu Hong, filmed with another teenage mistress in a hotel room, Shan Zengde a Shandong official whose written promise to his mistress to divorce his wife was mysteriously leaked online, and Qi Fang, a police chief in the western province of Xinjiang, who not only conducted affairs with twin sisters, but employed them both on his force.
Exposure of the illicit activities of one corrupt official may be happenstance. Four looks like a trend. It seems that the first act of the new dispensation may be to target the bad men in power through the women they keep.
If so, it's a shrewd choice. The flaunting of mistresses - ernai in Chinese - isn't just a matter of sexual irregularity. It's also a way for both public sector officials and private sector tycoons to flaunt their power in society: the number of ernai kept by any mover and shaker is a rough but effective measure of how much of the system he can actually move and shake. And since ernai tend to have high maintenance costs, it's also a good measure of who is on the take. What has been dubbed the "mistress-industrial complex" represents a nexus of unaccountable power and economic and moral corruption. It infuriates women in China who want to get ahead by their own efforts, not as some man's appendage. It angers men who cannot find a partner due to China's gender imbalance. It engenders a sense of general moral rot in society. It symbolises the impunity of those in power. And, as the unfortunate Lei found out, it makes for spectacular video.
Zhu Ruifeng, the investigative journalist who broke the Lei Zhengfu tape through his Supervision by the People website, believes that the affair may herald a change in official attitudes. "Maybe our new generation of leaders is really determined to fight corruption," he told the BBC. "Maybe the sky is really changing." Zhu has four additional sex tapes of officials ready to go live. He claims to have received them from sources within the security forces.
Anti-corruption drives - rectification campaigns in official jargon - are nothing new for the Communist Party. They have often been greeted with scepticism. While public opinion may be quite ready to believe that the offenders are guilty, it also tends to believe that they are only punished when they fall foul of the party's brutal bouts of factional infighting. What is new is that the latest round seems to be deliberately targeted at offenders whose downfall has the greatest power to convince Chinese public opinion that something is finally being done.
The medium of exposure is also new: most offenders have been initially outed via Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service, a means of disclosure that at least gives the impression that it is members of the public who have exposed wrongdoers for a grateful Communist Party to deal with.
None of this should be taken to indicate that the Party intends to free the media in the course of purging itself inside out. Reporting on these issues in conventional media is still strictly controlled. And if a freer atmosphere is beginning to emerge within the Chinese internet sphere, the virtual private networks that people use to leap the great firewall and connect to the wider online space are currently being subjected to an unprecedented wave of blocking. China's internet space is arguably becoming more free, but only to the same degree that the walls between it and the outside world are growing higher.
The great purge was prefigured by Xi's remarks at and after the 18th Party Congress, in which he identified corruption as one of the biggest dangers to ongoing party rule while making veiled reference to recent popular revolts in the Arab world. "A number of countries have experienced popular anger, street protests, social unrest, and regime collapse," he said. In Xi's view, authoritarian rule as such was not the problem. The issue was a combination of stagnation and corruption, one which risks causing what Xi termed a "calcium deficiency" in CPC rule. His remedy goes beyond anti-corruption drives and into a wholesale shake-up of the way that the Party does its business.
Meetings are to be shorter in future, Xi has announced, and they are to take place amid less pomp and ceremony. There will be less banqueting at official conclaves, no red carpets and as little disturbance to traffic as possible. This is the typical mood music of the modernising autocrat, but in early December Xi added a little substance to the show with a replication of Deng Xiaoping's 1992 southern tour.
Deng's original visit to China's capitalist heartland in Guangdong was meant to demonstrate that reform was back on track after the clampdown following the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 and many commentators have assumed that Xi has a similar aim in mind, perhaps starting with a privatisation drive in China's large state-owned sector. It's certainly likely that, as China's economy shifts from production to consumption, private business will have a larger slice of the national economy. But at the same time, it's difficult to believe that a man who has made national renewal the main plank of his programme will let strategic industries such as energy, telecommunications and raw materials slip from under government control. Perhaps the real significance here is that the places associated with the post-Mao reform era have now been fully incorporated into the party's iconography - a rhetorical admission that the idea of change has to be part of the scheme to make sure everything stays basically the same.
It's too early to say in detail what Xi's "great renewal" programme will mean for China's relations with the rest of the world. Some clues can be found in the work report given to the CPC by outgoing president Hu, which will form the basic policy blueprint for the next five years.
This spoke of establishing "a new type of great power relationship" and "consolidating good neighbourly relations". The first can be understood in connection with the United States, and represents a refusal to acknowledge American global leadership. The second seems to express a programme to use China's regional economic weight to promote its own interests in Asia and beyond.
This in turn can be seen as a response to the US pivot towards Asia and the attempt to build what Beijing sees as a containing alliance against it, in part leveraging China's various maritime disputes with its neighbours to this end.
China's actions in its maritime disputes have struck many observers as nothing short of bullying. This may be so, but two points are worth noting. The first is that China has succeeded in preventing other regional actors from taking a unified position against it. The second is that the intense pressure it has been putting on its neighbours has on no occasion involved the use of military force and is often accompanied by proposals for joint development of disputed areas and similar economic carrots to go with the diplomatic and rhetorical sticks.
Extrapolated to China's relationship with the rest of the world, this is not the "peaceful rise" articulated by Hu Jintao, but more like a "forceful rise", falling short of armed conflict but demonstrating that compliance with Chinese policy can be a much more rewarding experience than opposition. As China's economy continues to expand and its range of interests grows, countries outside Asia may be confronted with similar options.
It's a cliché to tack "PLC" on the back of a nation, but given that the Communist Party of China tends to think of itself as a massive national enterprise, in this case it's still a cliché with some vitality. Imagine the party, then, as a successful corporation grown stale and complacent: the managers are arrogant and power hungry, there are growing rumblings from the shop floor and the customers are starting to be put off by certain aspects of the wider corporate culture. In this sense, Xi is the new chief executive brought in to remotivate the workforce, cut some of his more egregious colleagues down to size and aggressively pursue promising markets. Partnerships with like-minded and cooperative national enterprises are welcome. But if this "great renewal" offends certain competitors, then that is most decidedly their problem.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist specialising in China and its interaction with the rest of the world.