Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

China's netizens not always on side of justice

By Doug Young, Special to CNN
June 26, 2013 -- Updated 0616 GMT (1416 HKT)
This photo posted by Guo Meimei on the Internet in 2011 shows her posing with a fancy sports car.
This photo posted by Guo Meimei on the Internet in 2011 shows her posing with a fancy sports car.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many corrupt officials in China exposed by vigilantes on social media
  • But opportunists also using social media in extortion schemes against officials
  • Young: Greater freedom for traditional media would relieve netizens of watchdog role

Editor's note: Doug Young teaches financial journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai and is the author of The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China published by John Wiley & Sons. He also writes daily on his blog, Young's China Business Blog, commenting on the latest developments in China's fast-moving corporate scene.

Shanghai (CNN) -- China's recent crackdown on corruption has netted a growing number of high-profile officials, often through campaigns that began with the posting of rumors and incriminating photos on social media. But those same campaigns are also exposing a seedier side of social media, which has become a tool for opportunistic reporters, bloggers, and crime syndicates to engage in vindictive rumor-mongering and even extortion.

Doug Young
Doug Young

The opportunists and vigilantes alike have thrived by using the nation's increasingly influential social media platforms -- most notably the Twitter-like Sina Weibo -- in the name of rooting out corruption under an austerity campaign by China's new leaders. While many of the resulting smear campaigns are based on genuine corruption, some are also clearly motivated by personal gain.

Such smear campaigns would have much more difficulty gaining traction in the West, where traditional media play a more effective watchdog role over issues like government corruption. But with China's state-owned media often muzzled by local interests from reporting corruption, decentralized and privately-owned social media platforms are more effective.

Corruption concerns Chinese officials
China cracks down on advertising
China corruption exposed online

One of the earliest and most famous corruption scandals uncovered by netizens occurred in 2011, involving a young woman named Guo Meimei who claimed to work for a Red Cross Society of China affiliate on her Sina Weibo account while posting photos of herself with luxury cars and designer goods. Her lavish lifestyle led to a public outcry over what appeared to be abuses of charity funding.

Guo quickly apologized for her "ignorant behavior" on her Sina Weibo account. The Red Cross also conducted its own investigation and found Guo had no connection to the organization. But other instances of mismanagement were later uncovered, and general skepticism toward charities seriously damaged the Red Cross' reputation and ability to raise funds in China. Two years later, the organization's reputation remains in tatters.

Last week, the bribery trial of the "sex-tape official" Lei Zhengfu opened. A former Chongqing city official, Lei's downfall began last year with the online posting of a graphic video of him having sex with a mistress. The woman was later revealed to have colluded with a property developer to lure Lei into a "honey trap" to extort him for money or favorable business contracts. Lei argued in court that the 3 million yuan (US$488,000) loan he helped the property developer secure should not be interpreted as a bribe.

In more recent cases, incriminating photos led to the downfall of government officials for such transgressions as owning too many luxury watches and hosting overly lavish banquets at taxpayer expense. In many of these cases, the officials in question were already found guilty in the court of public opinion before any legal proceedings began, and anything they said in defense was largely ignored.

In April, police in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou reportedly broke up a crime ring of 80 people who posed as journalists and threatened to write negative stories about people who refused to pay hush money. Such extortion has become common even among genuine media. An acquaintance at a major Sino-U.S. joint venture recently complained to me that she was forced to buy advertising from a newspaper after a reporter threatened to write a negative story if she did not pay up.

The government is aware of these growing problems of vindictive rumor-mongering and extortion and is trying to take steps to fix them. The official Xinhua news agency reported in May that six people were charged for secretly taping illicit sex videos of officials in Chongqing from 2008 to 2009 and trying to extort the officials afterward. The Communist Party's official newspaper, People's Daily, also ran an editorial last month saying that spurned mistresses may not be reliable whistle-blowers in corruption cases.

In addition to prosecuting extortionists, the government has also taken steps to bring order to China's unruly social media platforms, where scandalous messages can often go viral in a matter of hours. More than a year ago, the government announced a controversial new policy requiring all social media users to register with their real names. It said the move was designed to eliminate the cloak of anonymity enjoyed by rumor-mongerers, although many critics feared the policy was designed to limit free speech.

Social media platforms themselves have also taken their own steps to make their users more accountable. Last year, Sina Weibo rolled out a user rating system whereby each user is rated on a scale of 10, with 1 being the least reliable and 10 the most trustworthy. The posting and spreading of unfounded rumors lowers a user's rating.

The most obvious solution to these problems would be greater freedom for traditional media, which would relieve social media vigilantes of their unreliable role as government watchdogs. But in the absence of such liberalization, the Chinese government and private Internet operators will be forced to find new and innovative ways to ensure the quality of material posted on their sites.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
Chinese students show a handmade red ribbon one day ahead of the the World AIDS Day, at a school in Hanshan, east China's Anhui province on November 30, 2009.
Over 200 Chinese villagers in Sichuan province have signed a petition to banish a HIV-positive eight-year-old boy, state media reported.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
A Chinese couple allegedly threw hot water on a flight attendant and threatened to blow up the plane, forcing the Nanjing-bound plane to turn back to Bangkok.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 0503 GMT (1303 HKT)
China's 1.3 billion citizens may soon find it much harder to belt out their national anthem at will.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 0021 GMT (0821 HKT)
Like Beijing today, Los Angeles in the last century went through its own smog crisis. The city's mayor says LA's experience delivers valuable lessons.
December 6, 2014 -- Updated 0542 GMT (1342 HKT)
At the height of his power, Zhou Yongkang controlled China's police, spy agencies and courts. Now, he's under arrest.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 0826 GMT (1626 HKT)
China says it will end organ transplants from executed prisoners but tradition means that donors are unlikely to make up the shortfall.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 0648 GMT (1448 HKT)
China's skylines could look a lot more uniform in the years to come, if a statement by a top Beijing official is to believed.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 0855 GMT (1655 HKT)
Despite an anti-corruption drive, China's position on an international corruption index has deteriorated in the past 12 months.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
A daring cross-border raid by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's associates has -- so far -- yet to sour Sino-Russian relations.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 0051 GMT (0851 HKT)
A 24-hour Taipei bookstore is a hangout for hipsters as well as bookworms.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
North Korean refugees face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
ADVERTISEMENT