News / Asia

China Graft Crackdown Highlights Weibo's Power

Employees work at their desks at a Sina Weibo office in Beijing's leading microblog site, (File photo).
Employees work at their desks at a Sina Weibo office in Beijing's leading microblog site, (File photo).
William Ide
On Sunday, a court in China is scheduled to issue the verdict in the high-profile trial of fallen political star Bo Xilai. The ruling comes amid what appears to be a widening crackdown on official graft by China's new Communist Party leaders. Based on the cases already under review, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on “tigers and flies” - high and low-ranking corrupt officials - appears to be just getting started.

In the short space of several weeks, China’s Communist Party has announced more than a dozen corruption investigations. One of the highest ranking targets is Jiang Jiemin, the former head of a central government body that oversees state owned enterprises.

A review by VOA of some 40 corruption cases reported since last year shows that most were not the result of a government crackdown, but were instead first revealed online or through media reports.

Zhu Ruifeng is a citizen journalist who has exposed dozens of corrupt officials online. “In China, the Internet is currently the best force to drive the fight against corruption, in particular Weibo. Weibo’s most impressive feature is its reach; in 10 minutes a post can be retransmitted up to 100,000 to 200,000 times," said Zhu. "But this strength of the Internet made the government realize it needed to control it, they think the fight against corruption must be led by the government and not by citizens or journalists.”

China’s government recently announced new regulations that threaten bloggers and Internet users with jail time if there are found guilty of “online rumor mongering.” The rules have raised concerns among some that the power of the Internet to fight corruption could soon end.

Zhu said he is not concerned. He said that although his website and Weibo have recently been shut down, that has done little to stop his investigations into corrupt officials. Besides, he added, he has always made sure his accusations are accurate.

“Since 2011 we put under scrutiny at least 50…officials and 33 grassroots officials. We don’t think we have experience any action by the government, it’s more retaliation by those corrupt we have exposed. All the people we expose immediately seek to shut down our website, then try to buy us off, they threaten us and last they try to defame us,” stated Zhu.

Doug Young, a journalism professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University said the government's new policy appears to be an attempt to get people to think twice before they accuse someone of being corrupt.

“The way things work in China with the social media, if I put out some accusation against an official that I completely made up and maybe I’m only 20 percent certain, that accusation will get forwarded hundreds of times and thousands of times and maybe I have no proof or very little evidence that this really happened but suddenly that person becomes guilty in the internet realm, when maybe he didn’t really do anything,” explained Young.

Just recently, the Communist Party’s disciplinary commission launched its own website to report on investigations and to receive tips on corrupt officials. The Communist Party’s disciplinary commission carries out investigations into party members and high-ranking officials and largely determines their innocence or guilt even before they are brought to a court room.

The party’s website allows individuals to use their real names or post anonymous tips about corrupt officials, but only the individual who raised concerns can follow up on his or her complaint.

Ren Jianming, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University said that the website is a step in the right direction, but legal reform still remains key.

“To evaluate the government’s resolution to fight corruption we have to see at how much it wants to reform the shortcomings and problems of our legal system. Of course the level of openness on officials assets is an important aspect to show how resolute the government is. But I think that between these two efforts, the most important thing to show government’s commitment and to really cut down the spread of corruption is the reform of the structure of our anti-corruption system,” stated Ren.

Ren added that for the government to be effective it needs both the participation of the public and the resolve of political leaders to investigate officials.  He added that while he hopes the government will continue to encourage the public to expose corruption, he would also like to see its official website play a more substantial role in that effort.

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