Businessman jailed for privacy violations after helping expose Chinese judges’ illicit activities

Campaigner convicted of violating the judges’ privacy even though he argued he was answering President Xi Jinping’s call to expose corrupt officials

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2018, 10:33pm

A businessman from central China has reportedly been sentenced to four years in prison for violating the privacy of judges after he hired detectives to photograph them indulging in activities like gambling and extramarital affairs.

Wu Zhengge, a property developer from Yiyang city in Hunan province, hired private detectives to follow and take undercover photos of several judges from January 2015 to May 2016, whom he then reported to the police for breaking the law.

The case, which ignited local debate, highlights the difficulties faced by so-called citizen journalists seeking to expose corruption by local officials in the spirit of the nationwide anti-corruption drive spearheaded by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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Wu was sentenced to four years in prison and fined 30,000 yuan (US$4,465) by the People’s Court of Anxiang County for “illegally obtaining a citizen’s personal information”, including travel and accommodation details, China Youth Daily reported on Tuesday. The private investigator he hired, Zhang Lili, was also fined 30,000 yuan and sentenced to three years in prison.

An additional detective, Zhou Liang, was given “lighter treatment” by the law since the court ruled that he served as an accomplice, according to the report.

The detectives used undercover cameras and GPS trackers to follow the movements of a number of Yiyang and Heshan District Court judges.

Wu paid each investigator more than 10,000 yuan for their services. His exact motives for hiring the investigators were not known but his trial subsequently heard that in 2014 he had sent allegations of corruption at the Yiyang court to the local authorities.

His lawyer told court that these complaints had either been dismissed or passed to lower-level departments and Wu had decided to investigate further after being told to provide more detail about the claims, reported.

As a result of his investigation, Wang Maohua, deputy judge of the People’s Court of Heshan District, was photographed holidaying in Guangzhou and Hainan Island with an unidentified woman, presumed to be his mistress.

The leak of the photographs online prompted a public outcry, according to China Youth Daily, and the local district’s disciplinary commission began an investigation.

Soon afterwards, online rumours flew about Xie Deqing and Xia Xiaoying, judges from Heshan District and Yiyang City municipal courts, gambling in a clubhouse, as well as another Heshan District judge, Cao Deqin, sharing a hotel room with a married woman.

These reports were picked up by local media, igniting further public outrage over the state of the local judiciary system and sparking intense speculation over the real identity of the source, “Wu Zheng”.

Wang Maohua and Cao Deqin were both suspended as the result of a joint investigation by Yiyang city disciplinary committee and Yiyang City Intermediate People’s Court.

Xia Xiaoying has also been placed under investigation but further details of the case are not known.

In July 2016, Xie Deqing and Wang Maohua were officially charged with judicial corruption as part of the same investigation.

Earlier this year People’s Daily reported that the pair had been convicted of helping to falsify evidence in a bribery case involving a corrupt party boss, with Xie being jailed for two years and Wang for 18 months.

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Despite this, Wu was arrested by local police in June 2016 on suspicion of being the whistle-blower quoted in local media reports. He was charged with illegally obtaining the personal information of individuals and loan fraud.

His defence lawyer, Wu Danhong from the China University of Political Science and Law, argued that the men had not used the information they obtained for criminal purposes and legally reported the judges’ activities.

However, the court held that since Wu and his co-defendants obtained the information illegally, that already constituted a crime.

Wu Danhong told China Youth Daily that Wu Zhengge had travelled long distances to report corruption in public or semi-public spaces, and immediately provided the incriminating material to the local disciplinary commission and the media, resulting in the prosecution and suspension of the judges involved.

He further argued that Wu was heeding the state’s call for citizens to report corruption as part of President Xi’s widespread anti-corruption drive.

Wu Danhong added that there was no clear legal distinctions on the means of obtaining conclusive evidence of corruption.

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The newspaper likened the case to a 2013 case involving five Shanghai judges who were suspended by the party disciplinary committee after being caught on camera visiting prostitutes and having extramarital affairs at a high-end hotel. The citizen who secretly filmed the judges participating in these activities was not charged with a criminal offence.

Reactions to the whistle-blower’s sentence were mixed on the Chinese internet.

“Public officials should be supervised by the public,” said one commenter on news portal

“Who told him to report people indiscriminately? The judges were not standing on the wrong side. Which public officials should step down should be determined by the authorities, it’s not up to you,” said another user on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.