On any other day, Chinese scholar Fan Zhongxin might have been standing before his students in a lecture hall, but on Jan. 1, he found himself outside on his hands and knees. The professor of legal history at Hangzhou Normal University in eastern China had lost a bet, made one year prior, that Chinese authorities would require most village- and town-level officials to disclose their financial assets before the end of 2013. Advocates have argued that compelling officials (and perhaps their families) to make their income and holdings public could help curb government corruption.
Fan had publicly wagered that the Chinese government would agree, and within the calendar year. “If I lose, it means I’m not even as smart as a dog,” he wrote on Jan. 1, 2013, “And I will punish myself by crawling” for about half a mile.
On the first day of 2014, Fan followed through on his promise, bringing renewed attention to the lack of transparency within government ranks. He uploaded to Weibo, China’s Twitter, video footage of a lakeside trek that occupied “almost two hours” and left his palms and knees bloody. Many prominent domestic papers picked up the story, and on Jan. 7, video site Youku promoted a version of the clip, which then received over 2 million views in one day. Commenters applauded Fan for publishing it. “I’d like to express my great respect for Professor Fan,” wrote one anonymous Weibo user. “Although he was crawling on his knees, he was standing tall in his heart.”
Over the past 3 years, as Chinese Internet users have posted images of bureaucrats wearing luxury watches, smoking expensive cigarettes, or finding themselves caught in flagrante with mistresses, public mistrust of government has deepened. Demands for a more systematic method of public supervision have shown up in online and offline protests. In December 2012, 65 activists, scholars, and lawyers signed an open letter to top leaders calling for official asset disclosure, and in April 2013, activists organized a protest in southern Jiangxi province demanding something similar, which landed three participants in jail.
The ruling Communist Party did not appear pleased with what an op-ed in party-run Global Times called Fan’s “performance art,” which it declared “not very constructive.” State-controlled Xi’an Daily questioned whether it was “appropriate” for a legal scholar to “use such a primitive method” to express views on a serious subject.
In response to allegations of showmanship, Fan told the influential Beijing Youth Daily, “I was only keeping my promise.” In the interview, Fan insisted he remained optimistic that asset disclosure would eventually become law — just not this year. When asked on Weibo whether he would renew his bet in 2014, Fan replied: “Thanks but no thanks,” adding, “I have given up gambling.”