Who’s Watching The Watch Men?
By Elise PotakaNovember 7, 2012
Corruption-busting, Beijing-style has made wrist-management a political necessity during this week’s changing of the political guard in China.
It’s China’s biggest political event in a decade. On November 8, more than 2,200 Communist Party delegates from around the country will descend on Beijing, a hush of black Audis sweeping through the autumnal streets, to attend the party’s 18th National Congress. The meeting will usher in a new generation of hair-dyed leaders, including those chosen to replace President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
Images of delegates will be beamed into homes around the nation, onto the small screens in crowded subway carriages, hotpot restaurants and back-alley massage parlours. But the public looking for hints of an official’s character and integrity won’t only be scrutinising the lofty, lengthy speeches. Many will be searching for signs of another kind: an expensive-looking belt buckle, the flash of a brand name on a pair of glasses, a chunk of gold on a wrist.
An earlier political gathering in March was dubbed “China fashion week”, when delegates turned up sporting luxury watches, bags and belts, some worth the average annual salary of a local Beijinger. These extravagant displays of wealth stirred up an angry buzz in the hornet’s nest that is China’s online world. As user @lin12y put it, on the Twitter-like medium Sina Weibo: “Can they still speak on behalf of ordinary people?”
This heated up the wider online corruption-busting campaign that already had claimed political scalps in the real world, a citizen-led movement that might just see the political elite headed for the upcoming Congress leave their flashy accessories at home.
AN INAPPROPRIATE SMILE was all it took to make the man social media dubbed “Watch Brother”, otherwise known as Yang Dacai, a target of China’s internet sleuths.
When Yang, a local official in Shaanxi Province, was snapped grinning at the scene of a traffic accident that claimed the lives of 36 people, the photo went viral. It kicked into action China’s ‘‘human-flesh search engine’’, where netizens use their collective search finesse to hunt down the details of people they don’t like. That Yang had a penchant for expensive watches was quickly revealed, after internet users found photos of him wearing several different luxury timepieces. How could a local official on a yearly wage of about USD19,000 afford watches worth that amount or even more?
“First, five watches were found, then another five or six, and then the count went up to 13,” newspaper journalist Liu Xiangnan says. Liu has more than 85,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social network. He was the first person to reveal Yang’s name on Weibo. Liu believes pressure from netizens then forced the authorities into action. “I think all this aroused the attention of the disciplinary inspection committee,” Liu tells me via Weibo chat.On September 21, Yang was relieved of his position and now faces further investigation.
Yang is not the first official outed for personal spending habits that exceed his known income, and he won’t be the last. In 2008, Zhou Jiugeng, head of the Nanjing land bureau, showed signs — a penchant for luxury cigarettes, and a wrist weighed down by a USD16,000 Vacheron Constantin watch — that he was living beyond the means of a law-abiding official. The initial detective work of netizens led to a formal investigation, and Zhou is now serving 11 years in prison on a bribery conviction.
China Central Television (CCTV)
More recently there was Cai Bin, nicknamed “House Uncle”, an official from Guangzhou in the country’s south. Cai lost his job in October after online sleuths revealed his family’s cache of 22 houses, a property portfolio well beyond the reach of a clean-nosed public servant.
Following the money trail of fiscally creative officials in China is not always easy. Assets might be held under the names of family members, or bribes may be channeled through mistresses. According to a report by the People’s Bank of China, since the 1990s about $123 billion has been transferred overseas by dodgy officials and company executives. Some high-rollers have fled to countries such as Australia, the US and Canada.
But as a recent investigation by The New York Times revealed, corruption in China is not limited to political bottom-feeders. According to the investigation, relatives of Premier Wen Jiabao, a leader who has often publicly emphasised the need to curb abuses of power, have “controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion”.
While The New York Times report is blocked online in China, there are regular reports in local media about the government’s anti-graft efforts. Top official He Guoqiang recently reported that an astounding 660,000 officials have faced punishment for corruption in the past five years, with 24,000 being criminally tried for graft.
At a dingy university coffee house in northwest Beijing, Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology, tells The Global Mail clean officials are the exception. “If everybody around you is taking bribes and you’re clean, they get paranoid that you’ll report on them. So they’ll do everything they can to get rid of you,” he says.
Hu also believes that highly publicised executions of corrupt officials, often cited as a deterrent, are not effective. “It’s not that they’re not scared, it’s that there aren’t enough examples … so others just think it’s that official’s bad luck.” He uses the term “unfortunate egg” to refer to those who’ve fallen from grace.
It’s this failure of the system to combat graft, coupled with a general lack of transparency in China, that has given rise to the online corruption busters. It offers one area of agency in a country that denies its citizens any formal political participation.
And it’s all about the watches. Huazong, a prolific watch-spotter, estimates he’s inspected several hundred timepieces on the wrists of officials over the past year. He jokes that while he initially received some heat from the authorities because of his actions, the pressure is now coming from his fellow netizens, hungry for a new watch exposé. “Without the establishment of a reporting system where the property of officials is made public, it’s easy for their wristwatches to become a focal point for the public,” he says.
While Chinese officials are required to report their income and assets to higher authorities, this information is not made public, a situation that’s spurring online activists to take their actions into the real world. Across the country, people have begun petitioning their local governments to release figures for the salaries and assets of officials. Under a 2007 government-information disclosure regulation, citizens can formally ask for information that’s in the public interest.
But it’s a fraught step to take for many of the netizens — putting their real names and ID numbers on information-request forms that they then send off to government bureaus. Liu Yanfeng, a second-year university student, was the first person to send a letter to Shaanxi’s Finance Department and Safety Supervision Bureau requesting income details for Yang Dacai, aka “Watch Brother”. His request was refused on the grounds that it was out of the scope of the disclosure regulation.
Now Liu is pursuing legal means to try to get his demand for information fulfilled. But while he has widespread public support, taking such a stance involves a certain amount of risk. Liu says he can’t accept interviews with foreign media at the moment. The Chinese authorities often impose restrictions on people they deem to be involved in sensitive activities, and this might include warning them against speaking out in overseas media.
Lei Chuang, a 25-year-old student in Shanghai who sent 53 information-request letters to government offices, says because of restrictions placed on him, he also cannot be interviewed. But he did send a link to an essay he’d penned on his reasons for taking action. “Recently, Premier Wen Jiaobao talked about openness and transparency; power exercised in the sunlight is the most effective anti-corruption measure,” he wrote. “We put forward that transparency in relation to government affairs should be standard, and that all government work should be done with a principle of openness".
@我是只小小小的蚂蚁, a 20-year-old student in Nanjing who requested income and asset details for Cai Bin, aka “House Uncle”, did agree to an interview if his real name was not used. He’s a relative newcomer to the corruption-busting club. “It’s a big trend,” he says, inserting a beaming smiley-face emoticon into our online chat. “At the moment, all around the country people are pushing for transparency. It’s a long process, as there are so many things that need to be made more open.” But he sees a cumulative effect as more people come onboard: “I’m just a tiny ant, but behind me there are many other ants.”
As the netizen-supervision movement grows, it also brings with it concerns over its ability to influence formal investigative and legal processes. Just as a fancy watch is not always a sign of guilt, decisions in China’s legal system aren’t always immune to external factors. The worrying case of Deng Yujiao, a young woman who stabbed and killed an official, but didn’t end up in jail, is a prime example of how public opinion can influence legal outcomes.
Professor Hu Xingdou put it this way: “In China’s biggest legal cases, they focus on the political side of things. In mid-level cases, they focus on the response from the public and public opinion … only in the smallest cases are decisions made based on the law.”
Blogger Huazong tells The Global Mail that the anti-corruption movement also risks becoming nothing more than a game of slagging off the well-heeled. He stresses that income and asset disclosure for public officials must be pursued in order for the campaign to move forward. But even if demands for disclosure were to be met, there’s no guarantee that anything would really change, especially without tightening the rule of law and encouraging some cultural change. In China, getting ahead goes hand-in-hand with gift-giving — whether you want to smooth the way for your child’s acceptance into a good school, increase your chances of a promotion, or achieve the outcome you want in a court case [as in, all these watches are just gifts?]. And besides, officials may be wising up to the methods of the netizens, and starting to thwart easy detection by eschewing obvious flamboyant displays. Wang Xiaobing, a television presenter in Shaanxi Province, posted this on his Weibo @223的-王小兵,: “We were just making an interview program … before the program started, the guest politicians all took their watches off silently.”
IN BEIJING, THE STREETS ARE LINED with Chinese flags, the leaves on the maple trees are turning red; the massive floral arrangements lauding the arrival of the National Congress are a last breath of summer as the air turns cold.
The Congress will be a busy time for China’s online anti-corruption sleuths, and no doubt new recruits will come onboard. As Huazong put it, “watch-spotting has become a national pastime”.
But as the delegates exit their Audis (or buses, depending on their status) and make their way into the Great Hall of the People in front of a sea of cameras, it will be interesting to see where netizens focus their attention. Delegates might leave their fancy watches at home this time round, but there are always signifiers of wealth. Dental work? Plastic surgery? A look of smugness? Or even a fat belly — a sure sign of too many expensive, boozy banquets.