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Yueran Zhang senior contributor

How Online Sleuths Are Transforming Chinese Officialdom

Yang Dacai, undone by the watches he loved. Via China.huanqiu.com

The month-long online campaign to oust Shaanxi safety chief Yang Dacai (杨达才) has finally succeeded. On September 21, Yang, nicknamed by netizens as “Watch Brother” (表哥) for his affinity for expensive time-pieces, was removed from his position because of severe “disciplinary violations” (严重违纪问题). Further investigation is being carried out by Shaanxi’s Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Party. 

Yang catapulted to international notoriety after he was spotted smiling at the scene of a traffic accident that had caused 36 deaths on August 26. After an extensive online “human flesh search,” netizens found five photos showing Yang wearing a variety of expensive watches. Suspicion of corruption swelled so quickly that Yang felt compelled to participate in a live chat with netizens on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, on August 29. During the conversation, Yang maintained that he had only bought five watches, and had done so with honest income. Yet days after Yang’s confession, photos of six more watches circulated online. Angered by Yang’s dishonesty, netizens began urging the government to investigate him and finally had their doubts confirmed by the Party’s response.

“The era of online anti-corruption”

Yang’s ouster is the most recent example of social media’s growing role in citizen oversight. The inception of the trend is said to be marked by the case of Nanjing District Estate Bureau Chief Zhou Jiugeng (周久耕) in 2008. Netizens found a video of Zhou at a meeting smoking expensive cigarettes and immediately lodged accusations of corruption. The government soon launched an investigation and then a prosecution against Zhou, verifying netizen instincts. Since then, anti-corruption campaigns have been snowballing online. 

Zhou Jiugeng's not doing anything wrong in this photo, but he's smoking a 1,500 RMB pack of cigarettes, far more than an honest official could afford

Further examples abound. In June 2009, netizens discovered a document showing a court in Guangzhou fabricating “overseas fact-finding” reports, ironically to conceal the fact that officials paid for a sightseeing tour abroad with public funds. Under harsh criticism from netizens, the chief justice was dismissed. In February 2010, a diary by the chief of Tobacco Monopoly Administration in Guangxi Province was posted online and received enormous attention. The diary recorded in great detail the official’s daily life, primarily comprising dinner parties and womanizing. Soon, the official was prosecuted in criminal court for bribery. 

The above cases are but a small sample from a much larger pool of similar cases in which netizen investigation and denunciation eventually got government officials removed and punished. In just several years, online anti-corruption campaigns have gone from being occasional occurrences to a normal, frequent form of political participation. Meticulous netizens keep tabs on officials’ clothes, shoes and watches in photos and videos, inspect their résumés, pour over their purchase invoices, and monitor their personal microblogs to search for hints of corruption and wrongdoing.  

For many netizens, the online war against corruption is essentially the only way to hold officials accountable to the public. Given the lack of transparency in China’s politics, institutionalized channels to supervise government officials seldom function. Social media provides the public with an available and effective way to build a last line of defense against abuse of public power. When combined, netizens’ attention and anger generate an unprecedented degree of influence in the contemporary political arena. 

Indeed, this thriving movement transforms the relationship between the government and its citizens, and in turn changes how government officials behave. Political power-holders find themselves surrounded by silent but omnipresent, penetrating, and highly cynical public eyes. Public servants have thus had to become more mindful of, and respectful to, the people they are serving. As the government sponsored People’s Daily (@人民日报) summarizes: “Only by exposing public power under the sun can we effectively restrict public power; only by enabling everyone to become a supervisor of the government can corruption find nowhere to hide. When the occasional cases of online anti-corruption evolve to become a powerful method of supervision, when the ‘accidental’ becomes the ‘normal,’ online anti-corruption [movements] can act as an institutional power.”{{1}}[[1]]让权力在阳光下运行,才有可能将权力关进牢笼;让权力在最广大公众的目光中接受监督,才会让贪污腐败无所遁形。当一桩桩偶发的网络反腐日益演化为有效的反腐形式,“意外”将变为“常态”,网络反腐也才能从“民意分量”走向“制度力量”。[[1]]

The darker side of the story

While the online supervision of public officials creates new opportunities for political participation, it also brings risks. On social media, the truth is always mixed with rumors and outright false news, making it difficult to substantiate anything. While corrupt officials are more accountable, spontaneous and raging online campaigns can also hurt the innocent. Considering that Chinese society in general has had low regard for legal due process, one cannot help but worry that some online campaigns are driven by netizens’ desire to vent indignation towards any available target. If so, the movement risks turning into just another hotbed of rampant populism. 

Others are concerned with the overuse of China’s “human flesh search” (which Tea Leaf Nation has documented here). As Chen Shengyong, professor of public policy at Zhejiang University, points out: “Netizens do not have the same rights to investigate as the police. Most netizens depend on ‘human flesh search’ or disclosing officials’ personal information or photos of their family members. This approach lacks respect for officials’ privacy, and even could violate the law.”{{2}}[[2]]普通网民没有公安机关那样的调查取证权,多数只能靠人肉搜索,或靠曝光官员的个人隐私、家庭成员照片来反腐,这对官员隐私的尊重不够,甚至触犯法律。[[2]]

No wonder this NPC delegate looks so happy; his belt cost almost US$1,000

The government’s attitude adds another layer of pessimism to the picture. @刘智慧微博 observes that even though the government has gone with public opinion in many cases, when it does so, the aim is to appease netizens in order to preserve social stability, not to find justice or to reform the system. “Voices on microblogs can cause the end of so many corrupt officials [but] not because of the power of microblogging itself. First, when cases of corrupt officials ignite mass indignation, the government has to quickly respond in order to keep the situation under control; second, sometimes the evidence is too obvious to be concealed, so the government has no choice but to comply with the public opinion.”{{3}}[[3]]微博之所以能让贪官们纷纷下马,并非多么利器。原因有二,一是因为贪官现象过于普遍引发众怒,在集结到一个点的时候,政府必须拿出态度来,否则局势难以控制;二是铁证如山,即便是想掩盖都难,所以不得已也得顺应一下民意。[[3]]

A widely shared comment by a Shaanxi provincial official may reveal how hostile government officials really are to “troublesome netizens”: “Even if Dacai is corrupt, I don’t think we should investigate him. We shouldn’t follow the opinions of the online mob. Resisting the toxic influence of the Internet is very important to preserving reputation of our Party and ensuring that the eighteenth National Congress of the Party is held successfully.” {{4}}[[4]]别说达才没有贪污腐败,就是有我看也不能查,不能顺着网络暴民的意愿查,要顶住网络歪风邪气,这对我党在群众中的威信,对十八大能否成功召开非常重要。[[4]]

As that official’s angry words show, the online movement against corruption may have actually widened the gap between officials and citizens. Rather than focusing on how to reduce corruption, some officials have paid more attention to further concealing it. @223-王小兵, a media professional, provides evidence for that. “We were just making an interview program…before the program started, the guest politicians all took their watches off silently.” As an old Chinese saying goes, while the priest climbs one post, the devil climbs ten (道高一尺,魔高一丈). Many anticipate online anti-corruption campaigns will become less effective as time goes by.

Towards a long-term solution 

Citizens have been seeking more systematic, reliable relief from China’s “corruption syndrome.” Some are testing whether the country’s newly promulgated government information disclosure mechanisms (政府信息公开制度) actually function as advertised. In early September, Liu Yanfeng, a sophomore at Sanxia University, filed a request asking Shaanxi’s Finance Department and Safety Supervision Bureau to disclose information about Yang’s salaries in 2011. The Finance Department rejected the request, explaining that officials’ income was classified information not under the purview of the disclosure law.

Of course, the rejection incurred another round of mockery and anger. Many, including @段万金律师, insisted that the people has a basic right to know how much money officials are making. “The people hired a group of servants, and naturally the people have a right to know how much money the servants get from them. It’s just common sense.”{{5}}[[5]]民众雇佣了一群仆人,自然有权利知道仆人从他们那里拿了多少钱,这是最基本的常识。[[5]] With support from netizens, Liu has lodged an administrative litigation against the government. At the same time, Xu Fanghui, a lawyer, requested the National Finance Department and Safety Supervision Bureau to disclose relevant information. 

Chinese officials are now surrounded by omnipresent public eyes. ©iStockphoto.com/Nomadsoul1

A more fundamental approach is to establish a system to make officials’ financial assets publicly available (官员财产申报公示制度). Since the idea was proposed during the pro-democracy movement in 1989, the voice demanding establishment of such a system has never ceased. Representatives of the National People’s Congress have submitted proposals for officials’ asset disclosure during both sessions of the Congress for the past 22 years. In 1994, the NPC Standing Committee put a Property Declaration Act on the legislative agenda. Yet despite all of those efforts, no substantial breakthrough has occurred. 

Objection from vested interested groups is the main reason for the hold-up. Wu Guanzheng, former secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Party and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee from 2002 to 2007, confessed after retirement that the Politburo had once considered experimenting with the system in Tianjin, Shandong, Shanghai and Guangdong, but failed to carry out the plan because of strong resistance from the officials who would be impacted. 

In spite of the difficulty, some are still committed to the undertaking, believing that a systematic method of disclosing officials’ assets is indispensible and, eventually, inevitable. Wang Quanjie (@忧国忧民王全杰), a representative of the NPC, expressed his determination when interviewed by the China’s Central Television (CCTV). “All the [other] measures will be unfruitful, unless we transform the system. A good institution is more efficient than catching ten thousand corrupt officials [on an ad hoc basis]. An open channel for citizens to supervise the government through official asset disclosure will happen sooner or later.”{{6}}[[6]]不从制度变革,无疑扬汤止沸。一个好的制度比抓一万个贪官都有效。“官员财产公示”将党内监督改为公民监督,势在必行。[[6]] Just maybe, the online anti-corruption movement can also be a catalyst to institutional progress toward transparent–and clean—government in China’s future.

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.
  • Vinny

    Great summary!

  • Vinny

    Great summary!

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  • Chinese Netizen

    Isn’t it proven that officials that get heat from online flesh searches are actually just reassigned to different jobs or transferred to different provinces, sometimes with higher ranking positions? Do the flesh searchers have the means and will to actually track the officials for the long run or just smugly sit back on the initial result and pat each other on the back when nothing substantial is really resolved?

  • Chinese Netizen

    Isn’t it proven that officials that get heat from online flesh searches are actually just reassigned to different jobs or transferred to different provinces, sometimes with higher ranking positions? Do the flesh searchers have the means and will to actually track the officials for the long run or just smugly sit back on the initial result and pat each other on the back when nothing substantial is really resolved?

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