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11th April 2012

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The Optimal Unfolding of a Scandal

The best scandals always unfold slowly before the public eye, their twists and turns revealed only one episode at a time, feeding the public’s interest, keeping the story in the media every day with some new tidbit, and creating an appetite for more that keeps the journalists digging.

As the story incrementally gets told, we realize that all of the events that transpired are already in the past, but all of these incidents are now given a second life as they are gradually revealed. The order of revelation is distinct from the order in which the episodes of the scandal occurred, so there are two stories: the story as it actually happened, which no one can piece together until years after the fact, and the story as it slowly appears in the media, in an entirely different order than the order of events.

When I read about these gradually unfolding scandals I think of the principals involved, and how each was acting out their role in the larger tale, acting on limited and imperfect information, and not really knowing their place in the big picture, because the big picture is not known by anyone as events are unfolding. In fact, the big picture doesn’t even exist until the greater part of the story comes out and can be pieced together.

While the unfolding scandal of Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai looks very bad for the communist party elites running China, the difference between the two stories — the order of events and the order of their revelation — gives the Chinese spinmasters an opportunity to hijack the moral of the tale. With growing discontent in China over wealth dispartiy and the impunity of the political class (and especially the "princelings"), here is a story that the Chinese government can use to demonstrate that no one is above the law and that even the powerful will be held to account.

It is a comforting moral, not at all unlike US films of the 30s and 40s, but there is about it that same Hollywood flavor of unreality that informs the scandal itself.

Tagged: ChinascandalBo XilaiGu Kailai

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