RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
On China's Internet over the past couple of months, it's felt like open season on corrupt officials. Every week or so, some cyber-citizen posts an incriminating video or allegation. Instead of deleting the material, censors have often left it up. So far, at least seven officials have either lost their jobs or are under investigation. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on what's driving the recent exposure of graft and why it may not last.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The most sensational Web take-down came last month. It was a hidden camera video. The subject: a corpulent, middle-aged official from southwest China named Lei Zhengfu. The offense: having sex with his 18-year-old mistress.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LANGFITT: Zhu Ruifeng, who runs a muckraking website, spliced the video with images of Lei speaking at press conferences and at a groundbreaking, all set to this popular Chinese song, "I Really Miss You." Zhu figured censors would quickly delete it.
ZHU RUIFENG: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: I thought it wouldn't last long on the Web, probably just a few minutes, he said. But images from the video ricocheted around the Internet, and within days, Lei was toast. His firing followed the sacking of another official in south China's Guangdong Province after Internet whistle-blowers revealed he owned 22 homes.
Zhu thinks the recent flood of exposes is connected to China's impending leadership change. Xi Jinping, the incoming Communist Party secretary, has warned that corruption could bring down the government. The statement is nothing new, but it raised some people's hopes. And, Zhu says, China's Twitter-like services, like Sina Weibo, saw a chance to cash in on salacious postings about official corruption.
RUIFENG: (Through translator) Like Mr. Xi says, the party and the government should operate within the framework of the constitution. People got very excited. Many media organizations, like Sina, are for-profit companies. They want to improve their websites and reap some benefits.
LANGFITT: But there are already signs of a backlash. Today, the standing committee of China's National People's Congress approved rules requiring users to provide their real names to Internet service providers, including information publishing services. That would make it easier for the government to track down and jail people who post things it doesn't like. And, Zhu Ruifeng says, websites have recently begun to block more exposes.
RUIFENG: (Through Translator) Major party mouthpieces are all calling for management of the Internet and laws governing the Web. Because some corrupt officials and interest groups are afraid that their ugly deeds will be exposed, they are overtly and covertly blocking the Web.
LANGFITT: It's also clear that muckrakers can only aim so high. Luo Changping is deputy editor of Caijing, one of China's more aggressive and independent magazines. Earlier this month, he posted on his Chinese Twitter account allegations about a high-ranking official in Beijing. Luo said the official had fabricated his masters' degree and helped defraud Chinese banks. So far, Luo says, the charges have gone nowhere.
LUO CHANGPING: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: Many domestic media are not allowed to report on this case, he said, and frankly, Luo was hesitant to discuss it.
CHANGPING: (Through translator) My phones certainly have been monitored, including my office phone, home phone and cell phone. I can feel that. Sometimes phones will be cut off, and you can hear echoes.
LANGFITT: Luo says without the rule of law and a truly open press, piecemeal exposes can only do so much. He's not optimistic.
CHANGPING: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: If there are no systematic changes, he says, I think fighting corruption on a case-by-case basis doesn't have much effect. It's really just a power struggle between officials.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.