BEIJING—As Xi Jinping takes over as the next leader of China, he will have ascended to the top in a process cloaked almost entirely in secrecy. However, the sharpened gaze of half a billion Chinese Internet users means officials’ doings and misdeeds face unparalleled scrutiny.
Some argue that mass collaboration by online vigilantes—in which online users scour photos and public documents to expose officials suspected of wrongdoing—has become China’s nearest thing to checks and balances in the absence of democratic processes.
Such online exposés of officials whose tastes far exceed their government incomes are sharpening the public’s growing suspicion that corruption in China extends far beyond the Beijing elite into the hinterlands to the point that even low-ranking officials are alleged to be amassing sizable personal wealth.
Year of the Protest
2012 was empowering for Chinese Web users
- February: The term “vacation-style treatment” is greeted with online skepticism after Chongqing city authorities used it to describe the condition of former police chief Wang Lijun, whose escape to a U.S. consulate precipitated Bo Xilai’s ouster.
- July: Photos of bloodied environmental activists after protests at a planned copper smelt were shown largely unfiltered and in real time. Authorities in the city later promised to cancel the facility.
- August: A Shaanxi official became an online target after he was photographed smiling while inspecting the site of a fatal bus crash. Web users also uncovered a trove of photos of him sporting luxury watches far above his pay grade.
- September: Protesters took to the streets across China and millions participated in antiJapan demonstrations online as a dispute over islands intensified.
- October: An official in Guangzhou was fired and detained as accusations against him mounted online. Later, investigators said he and his family owned 22 homes.
They illustrate peril to the party in an era where every online user is a potential witness to official malfeasance and as the party congress in Beijing ends with a parade of leaders picked behind closed door without any input from ordinary Chinese.
Concerns over power abuse have surged to the forefront in a year of political scandals and have fueled the online generation’s challenge to leaders high and low.
Among the latter: Brother Watch” and “Uncle House,” two low-ranking officials who were exposed for suspected corruption this year by Internet mobs.
The claims that led to their demise: Brother Watch, whose real name is Yang Dacai and who ran Shaanxi province’s work-safety bureau, had a penchant for luxury European timepieces. Uncle House, who was in charge of a district urban-management bureau in the southern city of Guangzhou, collected real estate—22 properties in all between family members and himself.
Brother Watch came to the attention of Internet users through a photo that quickly went viral on China’s social networks and Twitter-like services. It showed him laughing with police as he inspected the aftermath of a bus crash that killed 36 on a Shaanxi expressway. For many users, the image seemed to epitomize the callousness of many officials. The authenticity of the photo couldn’t be determined.
Users began a massive effort of scouring the Internet for more photos of Brother Watch, and uncovered a trove of pictures showing him sporting what appeared to be roughly a dozen different luxury timepieces, including some by Swiss watchmakers Omega and Montblanc. Indignation toward the chuckling and rotund bureaucrat turned to anger as online users questioned how a modestly paid local official could afford them.
Three days after the Shaanxi accident, Brother Watch staged a defense, fielding accusations of corruption through Sina Corp.’s SINA -2.73% Weibo microblogging service. Brother Watch argued the watches had been purchased with legally earned income and said he was sorry for his smile at the accident scene, which he explained as an attempt to put nervous comrades at ease.
The effort proved futile: Soon after, the state-run Xinhua news agency, quoting local officials, said Mr. Yang had been ousted for the possession of numerous expensive watches and other violations of discipline.
Uncle House, the nickname for Guangzhou official Cai Bin, was similarly fired from his post and detained in October after investigators said that he and his family owned more than 20 homes, state media reported. Xinhua quoted estimates of their combined value was as much as $6.4 million and said local discipline officials said Mr. Cai was suspected of bribe-taking.
Mr. Cai and local officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
Incoming Chinese leaders face an overriding question: Can they make the political overhauls needed to restore faith in the party’s legitimacy without igniting social turmoil that could threaten its rule? Many observers doubt the party will gamble with fundamental changes to the system, but may attempt reforms centered on boosting transparency and accountability as well as more rapidly expanding competitive elections inside the party.
Chinese unhappy with the status quo are discovering masses of likeminded people online ready to take action on specific causes. One main difference with, for example, Arab Spring uprisings is that unlike in some parts of the Arab world, China’s users by and large aren’t seeking the overthrow of the current system. Instead they are calling for the common structure to be retooled to better serve the needs of ordinary citizens.
The power of social media to transform China has a parallel in the country’s modern history.
Back in the 1920s, China was in ferment. The Qing dynasty had collapsed, and the country was ruled first by warlords and then, toward the end of the decade, the corrupt regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.
Amid political tumult of the Chiang regime, a renaissance in Chinese media and literature was a driver in altering China’s course. Writers rejected traditional literary conventions and embraced writing in “baihua,” or vernacular Chinese.
Their stories, written roughly as people spoke the language, rather than in arcane classical prose, articulated the anguish of a nation. The writers of this era, including celebrated authors like Lu Xun, had such a profound impact on the national consciousness they helped pave the Communist Party’s path to power in 1949.
Today, anxious Chinese are again turning to new tools for communication—this time online services like Weibo—to challenge the status quo. And in echoes of the 1920s, written Chinese is morphing to suit the new medium. For instance, sensitive names and phrases are manipulated to evade and satirize party censors.
President Hu Jintao’s catchphrase to build a “harmonious society” is among the terms roundly ridiculed across China’s Internet as code for censorship and the squelching of criticism. The term in Chinese sounds similar to “river crab”—which has been widely used in recent months to lament tightening Web censorship around the party congress.
Similarly, searching the Chinese characters for “18th Party Congress” returned in recent days mostly official results, so users have gotten creative. Among the most popular workarounds, users refer to the congress as “Sparta,” which when translated in Chinese sounds similar to the three-character phrase for “18th Party Congress.”
Almost immediately after President Hu’s heir-apparent, Xi Jinping, abruptly canceled a Sept. 5 meeting with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Chinese Internet was buzzing with rumors.
Searches for Mr. Xi’s name, like those for all top Chinese leaders, returns an error message. Attempting to post a message containing the characters of Mr. Xi’s name is similarly prohibited.
As many wondered whether Mr. Xi had fallen ill or his political fortunes had taken a hit, more and more users adopted character homonyms to trade theories on his whereabouts. Others combined Chinese characters with Roman letters to refer to Mr. Xi.
For Beijing, relative Internet freedom provides a useful valve to release pressure building in society. But leaders face the danger of losing control of a narrative that says the country is stronger under its leadership than otherwise, analysts say.
Even staunch nationalists are posing new challenges for the party’s grip on information. In September, tens of thousands protested in cities across China the Japanese government’s decision to nationalize several of the disputed Senkaku islands, which are also claimed by China and called Diaoyu in Chinese.
Armed with smartphones, protesters beamed across China an unyielding stream of photos, videos and commentaries. They hoisted portraits of Chairman Mao, and objected to what many saw as the failure by current government to adequately challenge Japan’s territorial claims.
Elsewhere the online mobs are stripping away the aura of respect for officialdom that existed until recently through the state-managed media. In one well-known case, the deputy secretary of Hefei University’s Communist Youth League committee, Wang Yu, was fired and expelled from the party after group nude photos purported to be of him and four other men and women appeared online.
Local authorities denied claims that ranking local officials also took part in the orgy. Faced with an online avalanche of criticism, state media later conceded that Mr. Wang was among those in the photos.