Imploded … disgraced senior Communist Party official Bo Xilai. Photo: AFP
The Year of the Dragon may have catalysed a baby boom in the world's most populous nation, as parents take advantage of an imperial talisman of great power and fortune, but 2012 has ended with the Chinese Communist Party's new leader sounding a coded warning about dynastic putrefaction and decline.
The story of this year has been the slow-motion but spectacular implosion of one of the party's leading children, Bo Xilai, and the ascension of one of his princeling rivals, Xi Jinping.
In between, a cascade of sordid revelations has blown open a world of elite Chinese brutality, corruption and hypocrisy on a scale that few observers had previously dared imagine.
Bo's inner circle had been ruling China's largest municipality like a feudal fiefdom.
They condoned mass torture, meted out multimillion-dollar favours and even murdered an English family friend while wrapping themselves in the Communist Party's scarlet flag.
Foreign media scrutiny spread to the families of other leading communist revolutionaries and Politburo members, who were revealed to control vast but undisclosed business empires.
President Hu Jintao's main powerbroker tried to prevent his own colleagues from discovering that his son had exploded in a speeding black Ferrari accompanied by two young ladies.
And each day lawyers, liberal intellectuals and citizen activists have uncovered dozens of lower-level but still jaw-dropping abuses of official power and posted details on the internet.
The political damage of these cascading expose´s has been amplified by the rise of a huge and increasingly cynical internet community that enables relatively free flows of information and networking between like-minded people.
At the same time, China has deepened disputes with most of its eastern and southern neighbours and doubts have risen about the sustainability of China's economic model.
Observers began openly talking about the party facing its greatest moment of uncertainty and test of legitimacy since the massacres of 1989.
In short, 2012 has provided the perfect back story for Xi to set a fresh course for the party and consolidate his personal power.
Since taking over the party and the military on November 15, Xi has repeatedly warned that corruption and decay have grown so serious as to threaten the party and the state.
He has flayed China's bloated bureaucracy and curbed the previously ubiquitous extravagant banquets, red carpet receptions and black Audi cavalcades.
His first tour as leader was a symbolic visit to the export gateway of Shenzhen, where his own father had kick-started China's opening to the world in 1978 and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had restarted economic reforms in 1992.
Symbolically, at least, Xi has used what he calls Bo's "despicable" misdeeds to foreshadow a more disciplined party state and a recommitment to economic reform.
Last week Xi covered new ground by hinting that the party's abuses of power have grown so great that a degree of institutional accountability might be in order.
He reminded representatives of China's faux-opposition parties about a conversation involving Mao Zedong in 1945.
At the revolutionary base of Yan'an, Mao had asked a democratic leader he was trying to woo, Huang Yanpei, what he thought of the communist community he was building.
Huang said he could not see how Mao's young revolutionaries could break free of the dynastic cycles of rise and decline that had defined Chinese history.
Mao's reply helped to bring thousands of liberal intellectuals to his cause.
"We have found a new path; we can break free of the cycle," said Mao. "The path is called democracy."
In recent years, several of Xi's associates on both the left and right of the political spectrum have been quoting the same exchange to bolster their arguments for democratic reform.
At his Thursday meeting, Xi described the warning of dynastic collapse as a "spur and caution" for the party.
It is not at all clear, however, whether Xi has either the political capital or the will to meet the expectations he is raising.
Since his ascent, his party has significantly tightened its campaign to control the internet, a tool that presents a possibility of official accountability in the absence of institutional reforms.
Propaganda authorities have disabled almost all "VPN" gateways that enable users to tunnel through China's Great Firewall to access international social media platforms or banned foreign publications, such as The New York Times.
Rhetoric aside, the party's first substantive response to a year of damaging news has been to disconnect its citizens from news outlets.