Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) -- On the evening of June 9, three judges and a court official from Shanghai’s Higher People’s Court apparently decided to hire some prostitutes. To do so, they ventured to a hotel with a karaoke and hostess bar, and -- under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras -- chose companions. Later, as recorded by cameras, the women arrived at the officials’ hotel rooms, where they remained for between 30 and 60 minutes, behind closed doors.
Whatever pleasures June 9 might have held for Shanghai’s top judicial officers would probably have remained a secret if not for a whistleblowing businessman, identified by the New York Times as Ni Peiguo, who obtained and uploaded nine minutes of choice clips from the surveillance videos to a Chinese website late last week. Within a few hours, they’d gone viral.
Despite the traffic, the footage itself has inspired little more than bitter resignation, a bit of jealousy and, for those not grossed out, some titillation. Surprise, and outrage, elsewhere the natural reaction to the exposure of senior officials lewdly misbehaving, is rare these days in China.
This is understandable.
China in the age of President Xi Jinping is a scandal-ridden place, where officials regularly abuse public positions and resources in pursuit of private pleasures. It was that kind of place under Xi’s predecessors, too: The difference is that Xi, more than Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin, has made cracking down on official extravagance and corruption two of the most public programs of his young tenure. China’s largely state-run (and propaganda-heavy) news media have followed instep, running what seems like daily stories on corrupt officials and their pilfered riches. To an extent, the Chinese media have always indulged these stories; but social media, combined with Xi’s push, have made them ubiquitous.
Over time, this barrage of corruption stories takes its toll, lowering the already low baseline expectations that Chinese have for the integrity of their government officials. In a sense, every crime and crackdown transforms lingering mistrust into conviction. Why bother getting worked up about a few Shanghai judges when a small-time official in Guangdong province is accused of taking in around $4.3 billion in bribes while supporting 47 mistresses? If anything, continued scandal is just one piece in an era of diminished expectations, where blue skies in Beijing are worthy of celebration and government food-safety inspectors tell reporters they shouldn’t expect the food-safety standards of the developed world.
On China’s microblogs expressions of ambivalence are rife. “Judges of Shanghai Higher People’s Court went whoring together, and it’s a big scandal,” tweeted an anonymous user on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging service, on Sunday. “But in a country with ceaseless scandal, this is just something people will chatter about after meals.”
It’s not only online commentators who feel this way, either. On Saturday night, the hardline Communist Party-owned Global Times newspaper sent an unusually frank message from its Sina Weibo account: “The judges of the Shanghai High Court were revealed picking up prostitutes. The key point isn’t that they went whoring, but that they did so in a group. Law is the bottom line in society and judges are the safeguards of that line. They crossed the line collectively. What’s ironic is that this is nothing new to the public. Endless official corruption has transformed anger into numbness. That’s what’s most pathetic.”
What might be even more pathetic, though, is that in many of these scandals the corruption runs deeper than the single case in the newspapers on a given day. In this instance, it seems Ni Peiguo believes that one of the frisky judges may have had some influence in a 2009 lawsuit involving him and one of the judge’s family members. Unable to seek legal redress, the whistleblower apparently sought revenge.
Corruption is also at the center of a question piquing the curiosity of Chinese commentators: How it is possible for members of China’s most powerful courts to cavort in hostess bars with so little apparent fear for their reputations? In a Friday night tweet, Liu Yu, vice-chair of the Municipal Communist Party Committee in Changsha, pointed to the Chinese government’s ability to open and close such venues at will. In the case of the Hengshan Resort, it clearly chose not to act:
“When criticizing the personal morals of the judges, we should think about the overall quality of our officials. After all, how much corruption is hidden behind the ‘bath centers’ which provide sexual services? China is a country with strict social control. Without public power and interests involved in such venues, it’s impossible for them to exist.”
Sure enough, two days later, the Guangzhou-based Southern Daily revealed that the Hengshan Resort, where the judges cavorted, is officially designated for government and Party officials. That’s no surprise: According to a company website, the Hengshan Group, which operates the hotel, is a government-invested company. Nonetheless, the Hengshan Resort told the Southern Daily that independent operators, and not it, manage the nightclub from which the judges allegedly purchased sexual services.
Of course, the ubiquity of corruption is no reason to stop cracking down on it, and Xi’s administration seems determined to press on with its very public campaign. Late Tuesday, state newswire Xinhua reported that two of the three judges and the court official had been expelled from the Communist Party (according to a later press report, the third judge’s Party membership was preserved -- though on probation -- because his drunkenness prevented him from engaging with prostitutes). Meanwhile, business at the Hengshan Resort has been suspended while it undergoes “rectification.”
These are unusually harsh and swift penalties, obviously designed to restore faith in the Communist Party’s ability to police itself. As a Xinhua editorial published earlier on Tuesday aptly put it, the scandal is “indicative of the CPC’s resolve to sniff out every corrupt pheromone, punish every guilty official and constantly eliminate the soil which breeds graft, so as to earn people’s trust with actual results.” The ultimate question is whether the actual results are only fueling the sense of mistrust.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter.)
To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
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