Tea Leaf Nation

Not Safe for (Government) Work

Forget those New Year's resolutions. Sex scandals keep roiling the Chinese Communist Party.

Qin Guogang once held a respectable post as an official in China's ruling Communist Party: He was associate dean at a provincial party school, where public officials study. Now, he is famous for a different position: On Jan. 13, a user of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, claiming to be Qin's mistress uploaded images showing a naked Qin removing the underwear from a woman who lay prone. The self-proclaimed former lover wrote that the images were pulled from a sex tape the two filmed together, and she threatened to upload the entire video unless Qin confessed to authorities.

By Jan. 15, the scandal had become the most-queried topic on Baidu, China's most popular search engine, and made headlines in major domestic media. Qin, perhaps hoping to salvage what was left of his reputation, turned himself in. (Authorities confirmed that he has been suspended from his position is under investigation.)

Qin is far from the first Chinese bureaucrat to fall from grace after an illicit affair. In fact, he is not even the first this month. On Jan. 15, authorities confirmed they had sacked Wang Wen, the official in charge of maintaining party discipline at a state-run scientific institute in southern China, two days after an explicit video showing a naked Wang sharing a hotel room with his alleged mistress appeared online. A local news outlet reported that the peripatetic Wang also had sex with his mistress of one and a half years in his office and in a parked car.

Mistress whistleblowers have broken stories before in China, where mistresses are forbidden for party officials but appear to be dishearteningly common among the cadre ranks. Such exposure can have serious consequences: When naked footage of what the New York Times called the "memorably unattractive" mid-tier official Lei Zhengfu and his much-younger mistress leaked in November 2012, the resulting scandal led to a corruption investigation that not only landed Lei in the brig for 13 years on a bribery charge, but cost another ten cadres their jobs.

Chinese media have likened both Wang and Qin to Lei, which doesn't bode well for either of them. "Qin Guogang was not able to learn any lessons from the cautionary tale of Lei Zhengfu," lamented an op-ed in the People's Daily. But on the bright side for the party, the article added, the handling of Qin's case could serve as an "additional warning" for other wayward officials.

(via Weibo/Fair Use)

Tea Leaf Nation

In China, A New Space for New Questions

And some of them were never allowed in history class.

Out of democracy, rule of law and freedom, what does China most need now? What is the difference between loving one's country and loving the government? What is freedom of speech -- or, for that matter, freedom

With Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and major news outlets like the New York Times and Bloomberg all effectively  banned in China, and Chinese state media muzzled as always, it's getting increasingly difficult for Chinese citizens to answer -- or even ask -- questions like these. But Zhihu, an online platform that allows Chinese web users to pose and engage the hard questions could challenge the status quo. Meaning 'do you know' in Chinese, Zhihu is an interactive, online platform similar to Quora.com where anyone can post questions, with the best responses upvoted by others. Featuring high-profile Chinese entrepreneurs and public intellectuals among its users, Zhihu is increasingly providing Chinese netizens with a space for rich discussion, one surprisingly free -- at least for now -- from government censorship.

With what a representative claims are 40 million monthly visitors, Zhihu is still far less popular than platforms like Sina Weibo, which boasts 500 million registered users. But over the past six months Weibo, once a promising avenue for free speech, has increasingly fallen under government control. The result is a space increasingly filled with celebrity news, photos of food, and reposts of the latest viral memes -- one losing the free-wheeling candor that once made it so promising to free-speech advocates. That's why Wei Wuhui, a technology expert at Shanghai Jiaotong University, called Zhihu "a step up from Weibo." Because it focuses on answering questions, rather than simply sharing information, it is "more valuable for Chinese society," said Wei.

Zhihu provides a home for the discussions that were never allowed in China's state education system. Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese debate the hypothetical political processes required for reunification; other users sophisticated arguments about the fraught relations between Chinese ethnic minorities and the Han, who make up roughly 92 percent of the population. Some of the repartee that results from sensitive topics can be both humorous and tragic. One commenter asked about the most common way for intellectuals to commit suicide during the anarchic, decade-long Cultural Revolution; another responded, "Tell the truth." "Do Taiwanese generally dislike Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, and if so, why," was a popular question -- and one of the most popular answers was yes, "because they can" in Taiwan's democratic society. 

Relatively open discussions like these help explain why Zhihu's following has grown rapidly since its founding in January 2011. In a country where the education system and media are firmly controlled by a Chinese Communist Party that seeks to command public opinion, some citizens hunger for other, freer forms of information. In an interview Huang Jixin, co-founder of Zhihu, said that citizens with spending power now want high-quality information, not just high quality goods. A former journalist -- and on Twitter, a self-described "incurable optimist" and "pathetic liberal" -- Huang said he became frustrated with traditional media's requirement that he cover subjects about which he had only superficial knowledge. He and his co-founders "felt there had to be something more than journalism" to generate content.

To be sure, when topics veer beyond the edgy and into the forbidden, Zhihu self-censors. Like Weibo and the popular messaging service WeChat, the site often deletes posts it thinks the government wouldn't approve. The Zhihu user agreement clearly forbids posting anything that "spreads rumors, disrupts social order, or breaks social stability" -- clear keywords for political heterodoxy. It's not hard to see that prohibition in action: A search for "six-four" in Chinese, code for the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and subsequent crackdown, sometimes returns a 404 message, temporarily preventing the user from logging in.

Wei captured this tension by praising and shaming the site in the same breath: "Out of all the platforms available to Internet users in China, Zhihu is one of the best places for deep and meaningful discussions," as long as users "don't have any deep and meaningful discussions about topics deemed to be sensitive by the Chinese government." Zhihu users have questioned Huang about what exactly Zhihu deems fit to delete. In one discussion he admitted that sometimes the site's team "has no choice but to clench their teeth and delete certain content." But he argued that Zhihu was ultimately one of the good guys: "Anything that promotes the free flow of information is, in its heart of hearts, a good thing." 

Screenshot from Zhihu.com