Why investigators spread titillating gossip about China's corrupt officials
Chang Ping says salacious details in graft cases are released to divert attention from real problems
The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Chinese Communist Party is rather concerned about whether government officials are in the habit of watching pornographic DVDs and, if they do, where they keep them.
Recently, the Inner Mongolia commission for discipline inspection accused the autonomous region's former deputy secretary general Wu Zhizhong of violating laws and discipline. Xinhua reported last month that Wu turned a room at his home into a hall for worship where he hid about 100 pornographic DVDs in a drawer under a Buddhist statute.
It wasn't as if Wu didn't have enough space to keep his DVDs as, according to reports, he owned 34 properties across the country and overseas. Investigators searching his premises found a bag holding nothing but keys. Reports also made a point of noting that he prayed every day. Whether he was devout or not, there seemed to be no need for him to be disrespectful to the Buddha. But keeping his DVDs under a Buddha statue is a key detail in the case as it highlights his hypocrisy.
In its crackdown on corruption, the government has highlighted the immorality of individuals to avoid touching on institutional problems such as the power hierarchy.
The government has been trying to convince people that corruption is rooted in degenerate lifestyles and spiritual bankruptcy. At the same time, it rejects the use of religion as a way to nurture the soul. Instead, Marxism is preached as the best way to improve self-discipline in order to "maintain inner purity".
Hence, the party's disciplinary commission sees exposing the moral degeneracy of corrupt officials as its mission. In addition to criminal activity, personal degeneracy, especially extramarital affairs, is what the commission focuses on and wants the public to know about.
After the case of Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai broke, the commission often used such phrases as "had developed and maintained abnormal sexual relationships with multiple females", which were derided by internet users.
More recently, the commission has started using the term tongjian, a feudal-era word for adultery. All corrupt officials have been accused of tongjian. The word highlights their immorality while playing down the fact that such relationships are a form of power abuse. That is why the commission focuses on whether officials are in the habit of watching pornographic DVDs.
Xinhua reports always carry the phrase "the reporters' investigation found that". In reality, reporters could not probe such cases on their own, as all information comes from one source - the disciplinary commission. The gossip-like details in their reports, such as "porn discs hidden under a Buddha statue" and "condoms or Viagra pills put inside a briefcase" are revealed at the discretion of disciplinary commission officers.
The disciplinary commission's job is really to use the media to badmouth corrupt officials. Had the state prosecutors been solely involved in investigating corrupt officials, the details of their sex scandals - inconsequential in building the prosecutors' case against them - wouldn't see the light of day.
Since almost everyone believes that corrupt officials are involved in inappropriate sexual affairs, the media do not bother to cite the disciplinary commission as the source of information in their stories. But one forgotten fact is that the commission is not only the source of information, but also a manipulator of public opinion.
One typical case is that of Wen Qiang, the former chief of the Chongqing public security bureau who was alleged to have hidden cash in a fish pond. This was an important case in Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun's joint fight against gangsters.
The investigation taskforce spread rumours that Wen had boasted that he could get all the actresses who had performed in Chongqing to sleep with him. Wen's wife was reportedly furious on hearing of this from investigators and immediately took them to a fish pond, where 20 million yuan in cash was found under the mud after the pond was drained. The notes, wrapped in waterproof sheets, were then shown at an anti-corruption exhibition staged by the Chongqing public security bureau.
But it was later found in court that it was the brother of Wen Qiang's wife who had hidden the cash and that it was not discovered in a fish pond. It was also found that most of the cash seized was in Hong Kong dollars. Details that previously spread via the press and circulated on the web, as well as the exhibits showcased, were fabricated by investigators to stir media interest and generate coverage.
I would not doubt that many corrupt officials are degenerate and morally bankrupt and that they have abused their power in exchange for sex. But we should not be blind to the efforts by discipline inspection officers to manipulate public opinion with scandalous details.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese