After Chinese state media announced last week that a sex video released by online journalist and activist Zhu Ruifeng had led to the ouster of 10 officials for corruption, Zhu should have been a shining star of the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign. Instead, the slender man wearing a black suit sounded glum.
Powerful interests were searching for his sources, he explained over lunch last Friday. Police detained one contact in the southwestern city of Chongqing, where the scandal had erupted, Zhu said. They traced a second source to Henan province, hundreds of miles away, and had questioned that person at least twice.
Two days after that conversation, the police showed up at Zhu’s home in Beijing. They banged on his door Sunday night and demanded that he come with them. He refused but reported to a police station Monday morning, where he was held for more than seven hours. Police officers from Chongqing pressed him to hand over five sex recordings he hasn’t made public and to tell them the identities of his informants. They threatened that “if you don’t present evidence, you will be in violation of national law,” according to Zhu’s account.
The pressure on Zhu suggests that despite Communist Party rhetoric about an all out campaign against corruption, limits remain. The party's leader, Xi Jinping, said shortly after being installed in November that failing to crack down on corruption would risk the downfall of the state. But while Beijing has dismissed some wayward officials and canceled extravagant banquets that stoked resentment among average Chinese, it so far seems set on keeping a tight grip to keep the process from spinning out of control.
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“The problem is that when these officials fight corruption they inevitably offend the interests of others (in power), so we cannot rely on the system itself to solve the problem,” said Zhu, 43, who began his website dedicated to reporting on official wrongdoing after leaving a job at a state-run legal affairs publication in 2006.
The situation underlines the party’s historical sensitivities and a problem common to authoritarian leadership: how to give sufficient public freedoms to keep a regime’s subjects happy, or at least pacified, while not allowing so much room that they feel emboldened to question those in power.
For China, that challenge is made increasingly difficult by a combination of factors, including the feverish spread of social media, rising expectations in the most populous nation on the globe and broad displeasure over issues such as disparity in wealth and privilege.
A partial copy of a speech Xi reportedly gave in December, leaked on the Internet and not yet verified by official sources, emphasized the need to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, where changes that Mikhail Gorbachev introduced in the 1980s quickened the demise of what was once a powerful empire. It’s a familiar theme for party theorists in Beijing.
“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken,” Xi said, according to an online post by a Chinese writer, Gao Yu, who was previously imprisoned for her reporting.
“In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight,” Xi said in the speech, which was first highlighted in English by the blog Seeing Red in China. “It’s a profound lesson for us!”
That “lesson” is deeply rooted in the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative and its insistence on an absolute hold on political power, a legacy that would make large-scale reform by Xi or others a complicated proposition.
For example, there were rumors before the party congress that ushered in Xi last November that his administration might signal coming change by lowering the profile of communist China’s founding father, Mao Zedong.
Instead, the congress featured plenty of references to the importance of “Mao Zedong Thought” and the man whose policies contributed to the violent deaths, starvation and injury of millions of his own countrymen.
The Soviet precedent Xi cited might offer a clue as to why.
Mao was displeased in 1956 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev condemned an infamous predecessor, Joseph Stalin, for having “practiced brutal violence, not only toward everything which opposed him, but also toward that which seemed, to his capricious and despotic character, contrary to his concepts.”
Those words could have been applied just as easily to Mao.
When the Chinese Communist Party, then led by Deng Xiaoping, passed official judgment on Mao’s legacy in 1981, he was blamed for initiating and leading the disastrously violent Cultural Revolution. However, the importance of his overall role in the development of modern China and the necessity of “Mao Zedong Thought” were upheld, a position that continues today.
An authoritative 2011 biography of Deng, written by scholar Ezra Vogel, pointed out that, “Having seen in Moscow how Nikita Khrushchev’s wide-ranging attacks on Stalin in 1956 damaged the authority of the party, Deng was determined to maintain respect for the Chinese Communist Party.”
While there’s been vast economic growth in China during the 30 years that followed, that political calculus hasn’t wavered much.
Zhu’s own views on the prospects for progress have dimmed considerably since November, when he posted the first sex tape amid Xi’s call for a cleaner regime. That recording, shot in 2007, featured a bug-eyed Chongqing district Communist Party chief in flagrante delicto with a teenager who’d been “given” to him by a construction company boss. The clip, and an untold number of others like it, reportedly were used in a scheme to pressure officials into handing out government projects.
The official was quickly removed from office, and Zhu, in interviews that followed, expressed hope that Xi’s words augured a transformation in how corruption would be handled in China.
Zhu is more hesitant now, despite the news that 10 additional government and state-owned business officials had been fired in the wake of an investigation the sex video had sparked. He cited a statement from Xi, quoted by official media Jan. 22, that the party’s central commission for discipline would punish both “flies” and “tigers’; that is, illegal activity by officials both low and high. “Power should be restricted by the cage of regulations,” Xi said.
On Wednesday evening, Zhu said such sentiment should be supported and encouraged. But that’s far from what’s happening now, he added.
“Instead, these corrupt people want to put us citizens into an iron cage. That’s the situation,” Zhu said.
He added: “Now we are facing a crossroads of whether should we carry out political reform immediately. I think that our country’s leadership cannot just make thunder and not let rain fall down.”