Microblogs challenge State media information monopoly by exposing officials in series of corruption and sex scandals

A legislator in Shanxi who had four wives and 10 children; a Xinjiang police chief caught giving government jobs to two young sisters, later discovered to be his mistresses; a Guangdong official who owned 80 houses and 20 luxury cars; and a police chief in Shanxi who covered up his son’s drunk-driving crime were among half a dozen officials implicated in corruption scandals this week that have gripped the world of Chinese politics.

The exposing of seven Communist Party of China (CPC) officials, only a few weeks after the new leadership took over the reins of the Party, has been framed by the state media as the first round of warning shots fired by the new General Secretary, Xi Jinping, at errant officials.

Many of the scandals, however, were brought to light by muckraking microbloggers, who have stirred public anger against corruption — reflecting the influence of Twitter-like websites in shaping public discourse in China.

Over-the-top projects

This week, the deputy Party chief in Sichuan province became the first high-level official to be removed on corruption charges under the Xi leadership. Li Chuncheng, who was only last month selected as one of the 171 alternate members (without voting rights) of the Central Committee, is under investigation for disciplinary violations.

Mr. Li was thought to be under investigation over his close links with Dai Xiaoming, the wealthy head of a state-run construction company. His administration had stirred controversy for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on over-the-top urban projects in the provincial capital of Chengdu, including a $ 200 million administration centre for the local party office that featured a replica of Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium.

While the CPC portrayed his removal as showing the new leadership’s determination to crack down on corruption, a string of unrelated corruption and sex scandals in recent days has added pressure on the Party, with sordid details about the misdemeanours of officials publicised online by microbloggers.

Online venting

While censors are usually vigilant in scrubbing information that casts the central leadership in a bad light, they have appeared to show greater tolerance where local-level officials are involved, allowing microblogs to serve as a platform for the public to vent their anger.

First, Lei Zhengfu, a high-ranking official in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, was placed under investigation after a pornographic video of him with an eighteen-year-old girl spread through microblogging websites like Sina Weibo, a Twitter-equivalent used by more than 400 million people.

Mistresses promoted

Then, microbloggers posted messages alleging that Qi Fang, a police chief in Wusu, a city in the far-western Xinjiang region, had given promotions to two sisters with whom he was sexually involved. The Weibo claims forced Party authorities to later put out a statement saying he was being investigated.

Duan Liang, a professor with the Party School in Xinjiang, told the Beijing News that the case showed that “how to sift the true from the false and better fight corruption via the Internet is a challenge for the Party and the government”. “Our Party faces challenges from the Internet,” she said.

“The discipline committee is on the sidelines, as corruption cases and sex scandals are always exposed online.”

In the past week alone, four other officials were placed under investigation after claims made by microbloggers — initially dismissed as rumours — generated wide public attention.

In the northern province of Shanxi, an official who was a member of the local people’s congress, or legislature, was suspended after bloggers alleged that he had four wives and 10 children. A report in the Legal Weekly said he was also being investigated for hiring people “to carry out attacks” on his behalf. In the same province, a police chief was also removed after a video was posted online showing his son beating up a police officer after he was stopped for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Meanwhile, bloggers in southern Guangdong exposed an official for owning property worth over two billion Yuan. State media reports said the official owned 80 houses and villas, 20 luxury cars and a hotel.

The most sordid case involved claims made by a television presenter in northeastern Heilongjiang, who said a powerful local official had raped her when she was seven months pregnant. A Weibo post by a user claiming to be the presenter said the official had blackmailed her after he had helped her scam a brewery. The official Xinhua news agency later confirmed that the official had been removed after the case sparked an outcry.

The cases have posed the CPC a delicate balancing act. While state media have framed the cases as evidence that the leadership had little tolerance for corruption, the splashing of lurid details of the wayward lives of officials has only further stoked public anger against corruption.

“The public is expecting more corrupt officials will be exposed,” the Party-run Global Times said in an editorial. “Weibo’s relevance in terms of corruption is more significant than ever. It encourages people to be whistle-blowers in the campaign.”

But as the newspaper itself pointed out, the Party faced a bigger problem. “People on Weibo generally believe”, the editorial said, “that most officials are corrupt”.

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