Perfect Storm

11.28.12

Lei Zhengfu Sex Tape: China Mesmerized by Once-Taboo Topics of Politics and Porn

A sex tape has gone viral of a local party official with an 18-year-old, who may have been hired to bribe him. It once may have met the censors in China, but social media have let the country be mesmerized by the once-taboo topics of politics and porn, writes Melinda Liu.

Contrary to popular opinion, sex is not the biggest taboo in China. True, eagle-eyed censors try to block online searches for porn.  And something called “crowd licentiousness” (what some might call swinging) remains a crime on the books. But talking about political scandals is more likely to get you banned in Beijing than gossiping about sex. If you stumble onto a subject that mixes sex, politics, and scandal—now that’s a perfect storm.

This is precisely what happened to Lei Zhengfu, party secretary of a district in the Chinese megalopolis of Chongqing, who was sacked Nov. 23 after a 12-second video snippet taken in 2007 of him having sex with 18-year-old Zhao Haixia went viral. The case is juicier than a just ho-hum sex exposé: it’s also a corruption scandal. The investigative reporter who broke the story, Zhu Ruifeng, told the Global Times that Zhao had “been hired and trained by a construction company to bribe Lei with sex … It’s common among Chongqing construction companies to bribe officials in this way to get project approvals.” Lei, 54, is now under investigation for allegedly giving profitable construction deals to both his mistress and his brother.

Zhu said the mistress secretly filmed her trysts, and then the construction company who hired her (she got paid less than $50 a night for each assignation) used the video in an attempt to blackmail Lei. Trying to fight fire with fire, Lei allegedly persuaded local Chongqing police—led by the region’s notorious former top cop" and vice mayor Wang Lijun—to detain Zhao for a month and imprison the construction firm boss for a year, according to Zhao. 

Police Chief Wang himself triggered a sensational scandal in February, when he tried to defect to an American consulate in China, blowing the lid off of revelations that led to the purge of then-party secretary of Chongqing Bo Xilai and the suspended death sentence meted to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai in the fatal poisoning of a British businessman. Bo is expected to stand trial for abusing his power, taking bribes, and bearing responsibility for crimes by Wang and Gu; he’s also been accused by party watchdogs of “improper sexual relationships with a number of women.”

Lei’s video has been a big hit among microbloggers using Twitter-like site known as Weibo. Mainstream Chinese media, meanwhile, have praised Weibo users’ role in the fight against crooked cadres, with the Global Times writing that “a graft investigation has been launched, demonstrating an unusually quick, comprehensive victory for Weibo in anti-corruption.”

“An increasing number of sex scandals involving Chinese officials are making headlines, both substantiated and fabricated, in part due to the growing role of microblogging in exposing the underbelly of corrupt Chinese officials,” continued the Global Times. “Many of them are outed for corruption amid Weibo sex scandals.”

The paper went on to list a handful of other officials whose sexcapades had led to revelations about their corrupt activities—and the current scandal may yet have legs. Journalist Zhu claimed to have “five more sex videos featuring other Chongqing officials,” but was seeking to authenticate the identities of the officials before publicizing the video.

If not for its political angles, the Lei exposé is hardly the most eye-catching of Chinese sex scandals. In August 2011, Netizens  seized upon images showing six people in mid-orgy, with several posed photos showed two women wearing black nighties and three men wearing nothing but spectacles (and they’re not cool-looking glasses either).

This collection of 120 photos—which initially materialized under the cheeky title “Comrades in Charge”—triggered heated controversies over whether the images had been Photoshopped, whether the men were local Communist Party cadres in Lujiang, Anhui province (prompting the unforgettable newspaper headline “Naked Guy is Not Our Party Chief: Local Authority”), or whether the orgy-goers were just “random swingers.” That was the official line, though one man later confessed he was a minor party functionary and was sacked. Government censors issued instructions for all websites to “stop following and hyping the so-called ‘Lujiang indecent photos incident.’”

Also riveting was last year’s case of the so-called Pubic Hair Minister, which ignited a firestorm on the Web. Wu Zhiming, then the Jiangxi province deputy party secretary, reportedly was arrested (for numerous discipline violations) in bed, alongside a couple mistresses, condoms, Viagra, and two journals titled “Pleasure Diary.” One chronicled his sexual exploits with 136 mistresses, and the other had pasted in it a single pubic hair from each of the women he slept with. 

Which raises a good point: the uptick in sexual content on Weibo cannot be explained merely by the fact that more sex scandals are taking place.

Wu reportedly aspired to sleep with 1,000 women by 2015, one third of them nonprostitutes—a curiously focused goal that prompted much online debate and satire. One Netizen suggested “the journal should be printed as a textbook and sent to all the government officials. That’s what we called a good official. He has goals and motivation.” Another chided, “They compete with each other in the number of women they sleep with, the bribes they take. In the time when Chairman Mao was governing, no one would dare to take bribe, but now ...” Yet a third observed, “I can’t predict what would happen to him eventually, but there are two things that are sure: one, the medicine he used must sell well from now on; second, his journal books would be the best-seller if they get published.”

Which raises a good point: the uptick in sexual content on Weibo cannot be explained merely by the fact that more sex scandals are taking place. Although communist society under Mao Zedong was intentionally presented as high-minded and strait-laced, even the late Great Helmsman was known to have surrounded himself with nubile young female attendants, especially when he traveled around the country by train. Going back ever further, to the early 1900s, the elderly dowager empress was alleged to have had an affair with the intriguing British Sinologist and forgery expert Sir Edmund Backhouse, at least if one is to believe Backhouse’s pornographic memoir, Decadence Mandchoue.

We’re also seeing more about sex because sex sells. Despite continuing censorship, Chinese media have come a long way from the days of unrelenting and mind-numbing propaganda. Media focus more and more on profits, and they offer more and more coverage of scandals—though usually only if the people getting in trouble cannot cause bigger trouble for the journalists daring to expose the perps. Toss a bit of porn into the mix and the readership really skyrockets, especially online.

As a result, media and Netizens are tempted to play up sexy angles. Most commentators have encouraged Weibo users to expose government malfeasance and help corrupt cadres realize that crime doesn’t pay. Professor Wang Yukai of the China National School of Administration said, “Only by making corruption truly costly can official credibility be restored.” But at the same time, some analysts caution that the instantaneous and sometime ephemeral nature of Weibo can lead to oversimplified accounts and premature conclusions.

For example, just last week, Beijing Youth Daily reported that a local official in the capital had been targeted by would-be blackmailers who had crudely Photoshopped sex photos to appear as if he were starring in them. Extortionists sent their victim letters asking for more than $30,000 U.S. dollars or else “a sex tape with other people will be uploaded to the Internet and photos will be posted on all the streets around your home,” reported the paper. It said the intended victim hasn’t complied, but he bemoaned the fact that other officials confronted with similar blackmail attempts “chose to remain silent because they feel ashamed, even if they’re innocent and the pictures are fake.” In the brave new world of Weibo, the combination of sex, lies, and videotape is a potent, sometimes toxic mix.