The Chongqing sex-bribes-videotape saga comes to light just days after Xi Jinping, who was appointed Communist Party chairman in mid-November, made anti-corruption pledges a centerpiece of an important speech: "Much evidence tells us that worsening corruption's only outcome will be the end of the party and the end of the state. We must be vigilant," he told top officials in Beijing; Xi also likened graft to "worms breeding in decaying matter." Whether or not Xi's intentions are genuine, similar pledges have been repeated for more than a decade. So how, exactly, do you crack down on corruption in China?
Li Chengyan, a professor at Peking University's Research Center for Government Integrity, has an idea: Involve the mistresses. No, seriously. A staunch party loyalist, he is researching the role of kept women, or ernai, as whistleblowers, intentionally or otherwise. "The phenomenon of mistresses is so common in Chinese history, but the scale today is really unprecedented," says Li, who thinks the problem is caused by loopholes in the discipline system and lack of effective supervision. "If we examine corrupt officials, about 80 to 90 percent of them also have mistresses."
Li sees a connection between China's modern concubine culture and its runaway graft: the "emperor psychology" of the unrestrained: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. When officials have absolute power, they become bold to ignore the law and social norms and do everything they like." This ultimately hurts the party: "It's misleading to think that keeping a mistress is not a big problem -- that it won't affect the official's main work, records, and achievements. Temptation brings temptation."
But where others see moral hazard, Li also sees a silver lining. "Many corruption investigations begin with information or lawsuits from the mistresses. Why not? They have direct knowledge of the officials' behavior." Eleven mistresses of a Shaanxi province official -- many of them wives of his subordinates -- exposed his dealings in 2007 after their families stopped prospering. The mistress of a former Navy vice-admiral ratted him out in 2006 after he rebuffed demands for continued financial support for her and their secret love child. "She wanted compensation to buy a house and raise the kid as a condition to end the relationship," says Li. "Changes in relationship status always produce unstable results." More tragically, an official in Shandong province was executed in 2007 for graft and murder after his former mistress died in a peculiar car-bomb explosion, and a police investigation turned up explicit photos of the estranged couple.
Zhu, the investigative journalist, says he hopes to break the cycle where "officials protect each other" from leaks about their bribe-taking and outsized sex lives. One tape at a time?