China 2.0

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.

Will the rise of citizen-reporters change the way China is ruled?
Will the rise of citizen-reporters change the way China is ruled?
Brice Pedroletti

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.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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