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February 07, 2013

Exposing Chinese Corruption Online, One Video at a Time

by William Ide

Chinese citizen journalist Zhu Ruifeng drew international attention late last year when he used the Internet to publish a sex tape of a local official and his mistress. The widespread publicity forced officials to take action.

Zhu may only be armed with a notebook, the Internet and DVDs, but he is striking fear in the heart of some officials. He says he plans to release more humiliating tapes such as the one featuring former Chongqing official Lei Zhengfu. His sex tape scoop was one of at least 24 major cases of corruption last year that first went public online.

But his activism has drawn some unwanted attention. Late last month, an ominous group of men -a couple local police and others from Chongqing - showed up at his doorstep and demanded he come out and speak with them.  Zhu refused and instead called reporters and sent out emergency messages online. He even posted video from a closed circuit camera at his door on China’s Twitter-like Weibo microblog service.

With corruption so rampant in China, Zhu says it is only sex scandals that really get handled quickly. He says that with freedom of the press on the Internet, people all know what is happening and corrupt elements do not dare to be corrupt anymore.

Brash citizen journalists are not the only ones focusing on corruption. When Zhu released Lei’s sex tape it was featured in state-run media. Just last week, China’s Xinhua news agency interviewed him about his confrontation with officers and their demands that he turn over the remaining tapes.

Chinese president-in-waiting Xi Jinping has pledged to bring officials to justice and change the party’s image of privilege. But Zhu says any real change will not come until officials are accountable to the public.

Zhu says that for every corrupt official there is an umbrella of protection above them -- their direct superiors. In China, officials shield each other, he says, adding that the only way to solve the problem is to open up freedom of the press and expression and give people the right to vote.

When Xi Jinping became the party’s chief last November he pledged to do more to listen to the public and defend their rights. However, he made no mention of loosening the Communist Party’s tight grip on power.

He Jiahong, a legal scholar at Renmin University of China, says that when it comes to fighting corruption it is not laws that China lacks.

“We have the constitution, we have many laws, we have many regulations and rules, but they are not very effective in action," says He. "You can see that from everyday rules, traffic rules, you know, not many people abide by those and very important like administrative rules and even the constitution.  In China for the rule of law, the emphasis should be on enforcement of the law, and the leaders should take the lead.”

Until that happens, however, China may still be reliant on individuals, such as Zhu Ruifeng, the Internet and social media to push officials to take action.