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Corruption

Big fish still elude China's corruption bloggers

Citizen journalists in China have taken the leadership's overtures about fighting corruption as a challenge. But while low and middle-ranking officials have been caught out, scandal at the top level is still off-limits.

It didn't take long for Lei Zhengfu to fall from grace. Only 66 hours after a video surfaced on the internet showing the 57-year-old local party chief from south west China having sex with an 18-year-old, Lei lost his job.

Lei, a district-level party secretary in the city of Chongqing, had made sure that contacts of the young woman were given lucrative construction contracts and profited handsomely from it. The scandal was uncovered by investigative journalist Zhu Rhifeng, for whom the cadre's dismissal was a triumph.

"The Internet in China is now the strongest weapon we have in the fight against corruption," said Zhu. "We have no democracy and no rule of law. Party officials are not subject to any kind of public control. That's why microblogs have an important role in the distribution of information."

Lei was not the only person to lose his job thanks to Zhu reporting. Since the affair got out, ten other officials and managers of public corporations in Chongqing have also been dismissed.

He has made the uncovering of corruption his vocation, despite receiving threats and even death threats. In spite of the pressure, the 44-year-old feels he is going about his work with new optimism and vigor. The words of new party leader Xi Jinping upon his entry to office give some grounds for hope, on the surface at least.

Cranes crowd Beijing's skyline as new constructions (Photo: ddp images/AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)

Lucrative construction contracts were offered to Lei's contacts

"The problems among party members and officials - corruption and taking bribes and undue emphasis on formalities and bureaucracy - all of that must be fought against with the utmost effort," Xi said. "The whole party must be on guard."

String of scandals

Bloggers and citizen journalists such as Zhu have interpreted these words as a challenge. Since this speech, barely a week has gone by in which a party official somewhere in the country has not fallen from power through Internet revelations. In one case, a village official in Shanxi province was found to have four wives and ten children, in a country where the one-child policy still applies. Another was the security chief of a small town in Xinjiang province who had two mistresses - who happen to be sisters - for whom he had arranged jobs.

In Yunnan, meanwhile, one party cadre was exposed over his fondness for opium and expensive overseas properties. Then, there was the story of the boss of a provincial bank who used illegal means to buy houses and apartments.

"The officials have started to hate the Internet and the officials in Xinjiang have even said that not everyone should have access to it, that the web should be shut down," Zhu said.

China Vice-President Xi Jinping stands during a trade agreement ceremony between the China and Ireland at Dublin Castle in Dublin, in this February 19, 2012 file photograph. China's ruling Communist Party unveiled its new leadership line-up on November 15, 2012 to steer the world's second-largest economy for the next five years, with Vice President Xi Jinping taking over from outgoing President Hu Jintao as party chief. Xi was also named head of the party's Central Military Commission, state news agency Xinhua said. REUTERS/David Moir/Files (IRELAND - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS HEADSHOT)

Xi stressed that the utmost effort must be made to fight corruption

The various online revelations have badly damaged the party's image - in particular where middle and lower ranking officials are concerned.

No trouble at the top

In a new study, Beijing People's University professor Tang Jun has highlighted a "crisis" in public life, citing, among other cases, the Lei affair. The authorities had not done enough to repair the damage done, claimed Tang.

Despite his success in exposing the Lei affair, Zhu is under no illusions. Citizen journalists like him have so far only been able to expose the relatively minor officials.

The "bigger fish" remain off-limits, as became apparent through the New York Times revelations last year about the personal wealth of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. That newspaper's website was blocked in China and one of its correspondents even had to leave the country.

In spite of this, Zhu will not give up. "A few days ago, Xi Jinping said that power should be restricted by a 'cage of regulations.' He was speaking about of corruption, and acting against both 'tigers' and 'flies.' He spoke a lot. We have heard the thunder, now it's time for the rain."

There's good reason to be skeptical. Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao also spoke about the fight against corruption when he took office. As too did his predecessor Jiang Zemin.

So far, no one has dared to implement necessary conditions, for example, transparency, curbs on power, an independent judicial system and a free press, to prevent corruption.

Signs of hesitation

And there are signs that the government is already rowing back on its promises. The uncovering of scandals must be regulated, according the "Global Times" commentary, belonging to the party newspaper People's Daily.

An unplugged cable (Photo: David Ebener dpa/lnw)

Some party officials have called for the internet to be unplugged

For Zhu, the argument that such action is necessary to avoid undue intrusion is a smokescreen. "With the argument that they have to protect people's privacy, they are trying to curtail people's freedom to share information on the Internet," he said. "In reality it's not about protecting people's privacy but rather the corrupt officials."

Zhu himself was summonsed by police at the start of the week, allegedly for distributing "incriminating videos" that could cost more heads to roll. He refused, preferring to protect his informants and evidence. However, it served as a reminder that he has made his fair share of enemies in the corridors of power.

Nonetheless, Zhu says he has further material that might see the rug pulled from beneath corrupt officials. Once the facts have been checked, he said, they will be made public.

DW.DE