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Yi Lu

National Heroine, or Femme Fatale? Why the Chinese Public Can’t Agree on Zhao Hongxia

(Guofu/Flickr)

Before the public shaming begins in court, Zhao Hongxia, whose sex tape led to the downfall of eleven Chinese executives and officials last December, wanted to remind the country that she was also a mother and wife. “Right now I only care about whether pictures of my husband and son have been exposed in public,” she told her lawyer, Zhang Zhiyong. Mr. Zhang (@张智勇律师) then relayed his client’s plea for privacy via Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, on January 4.  “I will reap what I sowed, but my husband, whom I met only two or three years ago, is innocent; he does not know about anything.”

Everyone around Ms. Zhao, however, wanted to know everything: how did this 30-year-old woman in Chongqing emerge as a starlet in the country’s largest exposé of political corruption in recent years? Ever since Zhao’s sex video with Lei Zhengfu, a Chongqing district party chief, went viral online last November, Chinese media have tried with almost muckraking fervor to put a face to a name that became an overnight anti-corruption legend. On February 1, amid growing calls for Zhao’s privacy, Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper known for its investigative reporting, released her ID photo online. 

“Remember this name that moved China,” wrote @火狼, whose tribute was echoed across Weibo. “She is our national heroine.”

Ms. Zhao, in a widely circulated image from her identification card (via Sina Weibo)

But Zhao’s own record in the case was hardly impeccable: even at the time of the affairs, she knew that the videos would be used for the benefit of her boyfriend, Xiao Ye. Yet for most commentators on Weibo, Zhao’s weakness – whether in appeal or in conduct – only increased her mystique. Observers believed the real injustice was to punish someone who had unraveled so much: last December, Zhao was arrested under charges of extortion and will face her own trial early this year.

“For what did she extort in return anyways?” @林滤山 chided the government response on his micro-blog. “What Zhao unsettled are essentially positions of power. Therefore, the corrupt officials who bought sex with their privilege are more culpable. They are only undergoing internal [Communist] Party investigation while Zhao is now behind bars. What kind of logic is that? To whom does this government really belong?”

As Zhao’s impending trial generated national attention on Weibo, China’s official media borrowed the anti-corruption discourse already active online – albeit with a less appreciative tone. The goal of the narrative was less to stoke popular sentiments than to pacify them: the official judgment of Zhao seemed to imply the government’s growing intolerance towards honey traps as a popular means to expose bribes and graft behind its closed doors.

“Even after she made the tapes, she was never a whistle-blower. She did not report to the police or the Disciplinary Inspection Department for Anti-Corruption,” wrote He Jingjun in a caustic op-ed in Global Times, a Party-line paper, on February 5. “It is clear to everyone that Zhao’s fundamental goal is not to combat corruption; on the contrary, she is only a participant and cat’s-paw in the chain of extortion.”

Some on Sina Weibo unleashed even harsher words. Calling Zhao “worse than a prostitute charging a clear price,” user @鄢烈山 denounced Zhao’s coverage on social media as feminizing propaganda that obscured the immorality of a femme fatale.  His critique – widely shared online – presented a deeply cynical view: the sexual appetite of the officials might be crass and tawdry, but it ultimately paled in light of the underhanded manipulations that Zhao had wielded to bring them down.  The ruin of her privacy, by this line of reasoning, was Zhao’s own making – she had done the same thing to eleven businessmen and officials.

Myth of an anti-corruption heroine

In the days following the photo leak, support of Zhao rejuvenated again on Sina Weibo, as bloggers hastened to defend her privacy and debate the ethics of journalism – they had been unable to reach a moral ruling about Zhao, given her voluntary involvement in the scandal. Blame, in this case, was quickly shifted.

“As an ordinary woman, I have a word for Chinese newspapermen: to earn public respect, the media must not abandon its moral bottom line in pursuit of pure circulation. We cannot lose the most basic sense of decency!” wrote @诗人潘婷, a poet based in Shanghai. “What crime did Zhao’s husband and child commit to deserve a life of ridicule?”

As the online diatribe against muckraking practices grew in volume, the legend of Zhao grew as well. For many Weibo users, Zhao became a symbol of powerlessness that endured three layers of suffering: a misogynistic business environment, an impersonal justice system, and finally, a frivolous tabloid culture that treated her privacy with all the solicitude of a peep show. Ironically, however, it was also the sheer volume of online discussion – as evidenced by the wealth of requests for Zhao’s profile on Weibo – that created the momentum for muckraking journalists.

While Zhao’s leaked ID breached the line between private and public, the construction of myth surrounding her life has remained grounded in a traditional repertoire of female representation. While Zhao’s pundits attacked her – and other women with sexual liaisons – as a corruptive force in political affairs, defenders of Zhao credited her as a victim that, despite her own moral weakness, was fundamentally demoted by a corrupt, male-backed order.

“Like the Bible says, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’  How could Zhao, a powerless woman from the countryside, challenge the oligarchy of wealthy men like Lei Zhengfu and Peng Zhiyong?” wrote @克里斯托夫-金. “Who is more dangerous to our society?

“In China, women are always conceived as perils that corrupt men; in Western countries, however, these eleven corrupt officials would be the ones behind bars – not Zhao,” he concluded.

More definitive information about Zhao’s life will certainly emerge as her trial approaches. Early facts seem to confirm the impression that Zhao, instead of being an anti-corruption heroine, only played a minor role in a larger masculine theatre of power and politics. Two men directed the spectacle: Xiao Ye, Zhao’s former boss and lover, commissioned the sex tapes to bait and blackmail officials for his construction company, while Zhu Ruifeng, a self-proclaimed “citizen journalist,” managed their distribution online. (According to his interview with The New York Times on February 5, Zhu plans to release six more videos.)

The larger debate

Mythologizing Zhao Hongxia – often at the expense of suppressing her own voice – was not an isolated media accident. At a time when Xi Jinping, China’s new president, has vowed to root out official bribes and graft, the debate surrounding Zhao on Weibo reflected a decisive moment for ordinary Internet users to shape a national anti-corruption campaign.  Inevitably, tributes to Zhao became almost inseparable from references to other fallen businessmen and officials – especially to Gong Ai’ai, a female vice-manager of a rural bank who is believed to have illegally purchased more than 20 units of China’s affordable housing adding up to a whopping total value of US$159 million.

“We will not forget two women: one was immediately detained and the other still running at large; one toppled eleven officials by offering her body and receiving only 40,000 RMB [about US$6,400] – not even enough to buy a corner in one of the other’s 41 apartments in Beijing,” wrote @老徐时评. “The disparate situations of Zhao Hongxia and Guo Ai’ai compelled us to think. Chinese people do not hate wealth, but guile; they do not dislike officials, other than corrupt ones; they do not mind being poor, except being unjustly treated!”

At the same time, the contrast between these two different women suggests how profoundly gender issues have informed discussion of Chinese corruption. Just a day after Zhao’s plea for privacy went public, on February 5, a new wave of rage erupted on Sina Weibo when netizens discovered that during her own corruption trial, Ding Shumiao, a businesswoman from Shanxi, had admitted that she was not only a mistress of the country’s former railway minister Liu Zhijun, but also a caterer of sexual services: for her own business benefits, she had offered female cast members of a TV show of her production – an adaption of Dreams of the Red Chamber, one of China’s great classical novels – for the minister’s pleasure.

“How can starlets in the new adaption of Dreams compare with Zhao Hongxia!” exclaimed @Fast-Furious悍匪 on his Weibo account. “They did not make a video of corrupt officials like Zhao; what a loss!”

Recent reportage about China has frequently invoked mistresshood as a passive marker of corruption and inequality there. But few if any analyses have explored how sexuality has exerted its own influence on the country’s current domestic affairs or the future of its political reform. Conceived as a threat to political rule and an embodiment of moral decay, sexual transgressions not only reveal the subaltern sites of power within Chinese bureaucracy, but also their particular patterns and functioning. The serial success of Zhao Hongxia is one telling example.

At the same time, as the country reels from news of another honey trap or erotic escapade, its moral rearmament also strengthens, however briefly, in both official and unofficial discourses, where issues of sexuality are hurtled to the forefront. Zhao Hongxia’s January 4 plea for privacy sent shock waves across China not only because the experiences she suffered – whether from press or from other men – aroused sympathy, but also because she spoke in a familiar vocabulary: the image of womanhood in her words hinted at a society in which both the private and public spheres are in order and uncorrupted. It is an idealistic image, yet in these moments when hope and greed both run high, even the most domestic business can become a force for subversion.

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Yi Lu

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Yi Lu (Louis) is a junior studying History and French at Amherst College. Though fluent in Chinese, English, and French, he never fully feels at home in any. With writing, however, he hopes to weave together dissonant languages and cultures, and create a unifying story of truth and meaning.
  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.zheng.50 Chris Zheng

    Louis strikes again. This is a very important and deeply thought provoking piece.

  • fdawei

    It’s disgusting that On February 1, amid growing calls for Zhao’s privacy, Southern Metropolis Daily, a newspaper known for its investigative reporting, released her ID photo online.

    Could they not have shown an iota of decency and let this woman remain anonymous? Did they have to become a muckraker journal? SHAME on them !!!

    • Wan

      Then, should TLN remove her photo from website to avoid further circulation?