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China

Press, Power And Corruption In A Changing China

Journalists at the second annual session of China's 12th National People's Congress, in March 2014.
Journalists at the second annual session of China's 12th National People's Congress, in March 2014.
Shen Nianzu

BEIJING — Since Chinese President Xi Jinping took office at the end of 2012, at least 23 high-ranking local officials have been fired because of corruption. What is most striking — though not surprising — is the stark contrast of these officials’ images depicted in the media before and after their fall.

Last month, for instance, just a few hours before the downfall of Wan Qingliang, top leader and party secretary general for the booming southeast Guangzhou Province, the press was still flattering this “honest and clean” official and formerly great footballer who was alleged to be living in an apartment with a modest monthly rental fee of 600 RMB ($96). But just after the official disclosure of his corruption, media coverage described him as “crazyandarrogant,” and the press spread rumors of an allegedly indecent sex life.

As all these local cases demonstrate, published reports about these officials before the reports of corruption were routine bits about their appearances at conferences or equally unsalacious coverage.

Yet everyone knows well that crookedness don't just appear one day but over all the long years these local officials served in the same field or at the same place. Once an official has been posted in the same region or system for long enough, it’s difficult to imagine them not forming a network of personal connections that subsequently evolves into self-interest.

Not only is it incredibly rare for the Chinese press to expose any negative news or public opinion research on these entrenched local officials, but those with a distinctive personality often receive unwarrantedly positive coverage. Even their personal hobbies can gain exaggerated recognition — Wan Qingliang’s “athletic gifts” and “strong will,” for example.

A few hours before former China Railway Minister Liu Zhijun was arrested and charged for taking bribes and abusing his power, the China Radio network was still trumpeting the alleged fact that he had sacrificed his Chinese New Year holidays for years to make sure that train services ran smoothly during this important festival.

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In Shangai — Photo: Jakob Montrasio.

Though press supervision is often missing, anecdotal rumors about officials typically ferment for a while before the officials are officially dismissed from their posts. Despite rampant rumors of untoward behavior, certain officials face no consequences after being redeployed to different posts, or at least not for a while.

As one analyst points out, whether someone will be held to real account depends not just on the rumors of wrongdoing but also on how he is redeployed to another post. Anyone shifted from a post of power to an ordinary post is very likely to be in trouble soon.

Anecdotal fermentation

But unless an official has already fallen, the Chinese press rarely becomes critical. As book research by author Li Dongxiao demonstrates, over 70% of Chinese press reports about corruption are about closed cases that have already been dealt with by the Chinese government or judicial departments. The press was only disclosing or retrospectively reviewing the scandals.

“The number of scandals are significantly related to the grade of the officials,” Li noted in one survey. “The higher rank the officials are, the fewer the scandals involving them.”

In fact, of the 23 officials sacked since President Xi took office, this newspaper is unable to find any reports, local or national, about their wrongdoing before their fall.

But in Li Dongxiao's view, even though only just over 20% of the reported scandals (excluding later commentary) came to light thanks to the complete or partial intervention of the press, coverage is still much better than it was in the past.

Through those over-20% press investigations and reports, numerous scandals were exposed. That prompted the public to respond, which in turn supported the disclosure of officials’ illegal behavior. It’s worth mentioning that 4% of these cases were revealed directly through the Internet.

Apart from improvement among Chinese media in taking initiative, the Chinese government's loosening of press control in cases involving corruption is helping a great deal to expose wrongdoing.

“Corruption scandal reports will uncover certain subjects considered taboo previously, change the public's evaluation and judgment of officials as well as nurture the public's participation and awareness in supervising politics,” Li says. “This will provide a good social and cultural environment as well as a civil society environment in overseeing China"s official power and anti-corruption.”

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