Are Chinese Bloggers Xi Jinping's Best Weapon Or Worst Nightmare?
China's incoming President has promised to tackle bribery and abuse of power. The country's digital citizen-reporters will hold him to his word.
BEIJING – The war on corrupt officials has begun.
In the transition period between the end of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, which elected Xi Jinping as its new Secretary General and the current National People’s Congress, a weeklong parliamentary session to elevate him to the presidency, China’s new leader tried his best to assert his legitimacy as a man of the people.
From the very beginning of his first mandate, he made the fight against corruption a priority, ordering “supervision” on the use of power and tell the Party it should crack down on “tigers” (fat cats) and “flies” (low-level scammers). It was as if the new red emperor had decided to “let a hundred flowers blossom,” to paraphrase Mao Zedong’s slogan inviting the Chinese intelligentsia to criticize the political system.
Xi Jinping is inviting the “masses” to speak freely against these corrupt officials.
A new generation of citizen-journalists has taken up Xi's invitation, searching for visible signs of corruption and revealing scandals on the Internet and Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging platform. Zhou Lubao, 28, is one of them. When we last spoke to him, he was heading for his native region of Gansu, in northwestern China. Zhou’s target is a big tiger – Yuan Zhanting, the mayor of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The province, which is one of the poorest in the country, is highly subsidized and corruption flourishes there.
When he is not fighting corruption, Zhou is a household appliances salesman. He started investigating Yuan in the summer of 2012 – after a Lanzhou blogger was accused of inciting subversion, a major crime in China. Charges were finally dropped against the blogger, Chen Pingfu, in December, in what was considered as rare victory for freedom of speech. Researching Chen's case on the Internet, Zhou discovered that the mayor of Lanzhou wore five different wristwatches on official photos. He asked other Internet users to help him identify the watches, which all turned out to be expensive brands: Omega, Rolex, etc.
The same technique had already led to the downfall of an official in Shaanxi, a central Chinese province. Zhou revealed his findings on forums and Weibo and the scandal went viral. Surprisingly, even the state-run media wrote about it, publishing an article entitled “China’s craze for online-anti-corruption.”
After this, Zhou received information on other graft cases linked to the Lanzhou mayor: when he was president of the Lanzhou University of Technology, he embezzled huge sums of money and his wife’s construction company was awarded lucrative construction projects. Despite all of this, the official was never tried for corruption and remains at his post.
Zhou decided to investigate the matter further, and headed to Lanzhou in February. He tried to file a claim with the provincial court, but as soon as he arrived, an employee sounded the alarm. Zhou and his comrades – local petitioners – promptly exited the building and endeavored to lose the two unmarked official cars following them. He ended up hiding out in Xining, in the neighboring province of Qinghai. During the Chinese New Year, he tweeted his vow to “eradicate the old cancer that is Zhou Yongkang,” the former head of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee and Hu Jintao’s former security chief. After his tweet, all of Zhou Lubao’s Weibo accounts were shut down, and an Internet rumor said that he had been sent to a re-education camp.
The computer as a weapon
Late February, however, Zhou resurfaced, and tried to secretly reenter Lanzhou to pursue his mission. “I don’t think they will arrest me because of the massive mobilization on the Internet. They would need to prove that I have committed a crime,” he told us. “I’m in the spotlight, they pounce from the shadow. Who knows, they might catch me right after this phone call!”
“I remain confident that they would not jeopardize their political career by attacking me. The public opinion is too powerful now,” said the young activist. He wants to use this week’s National Party Congress to “denounce this injustice.” “When people like me fight against corruption, we are fighting for our rights and showing that there is still hope in our society,” he said.
This creed is shared by another, more experienced but equally exposed, anti-corruption activist – Zhu Ruifeng, 43. Zhu is a citizen journalist, creator of the Renmin Jiandu Wand website (People’s Supervision Network). To protect himself since the scandal that made him famous in 2012, Zhu has been granting many interviews to the foreign and Chinese press. He rose to fame after posting a video of Lei Zhengfu, a 57-year-old official from the southwestern city of Chongqing having sex with an 18-year-old. The official lost his job, along with 11 other local officials.
The incriminating video had been secretly recorded in 2007, in a honeypot scheme where young women were paid to sleep with officials, who were then blackmailed into awarding government contracts. After being blackmailed, Lei went to Chongqing’s police chief Wang Lijun for help. Wang arrested the blackmailer and suppressed the 50 incriminating videos.
Zhu received the Lei sex tape, along with seven others, from a Chongqing police officer who was revolted that the sordid scandal hadn’t been made public, even after Lijun had been implicated in another, much bigger scandal, involving his superior – Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai – and was hiding out at the U.S. Consulate.
In January, Zhu was able to prevent the Chongqing police from seizing the eight videos from his Beijing house by alerting the press. He told them he had copies of the tapes stashed in a safe place. “This is the first time in history that 11 officials are sacked at the same time. I want things to calm down to see if the authorities do their work,” he tells us in the Beijing bookstore that also serves as his headquarters.
Will the new Chinese president hold his promise or will he drop his anti-corruption crusade? In Chinese history, leaders have often made populist overtures that have ended in generalized repression.
As Xi Jinping rises to power, the citizen-journalists that are on the frontlines are heading for a minefield. “Sometimes I imagine how they are going to kill me. Car accident? Assassination? But I’m not afraid, we need to fight this corruption, even if I must suffer in the process,” says Gao Qinrong, a 57-year-old journalist, talking about the corrupt officials from Yuncheng in the northeastern Shanxi province, who he has been denouncing on Weibo. He was kidnapped in Beijing by the Yuncheng police and spent eight years in jail on false charges. His informant, a Shanxi civil servant based in Beijing was also jailed for seven years. After his release he was beat up so badly he is now in a wheelchair.
Gao has not stopped fighting for justice. He says the climate has changed: “The Chinese media are freer. Their reports support me, which means they haven’t been censored yet.” He adds: “The Chinese people have finally found their weapon – the computer mouse.”