Lewd photos extortion racket hits China's corrupt officialdom

Lewd photos extortion racket hits China's corrupt officialdom

Apart from contending with anti-graft inspectors, civil servants must deal with blackmailers.

The photograph usually arrives as an email attachment or the old-fashioned way, in an envelope with no return address. It is rarely a pretty picture. Often the image captures a well-fed, middle-aged bureaucrat engaged in a sordid encounter with a woman who is not his wife. Or it could be a fully clothed official but one wearing an expensive timepiece that his government salary could never afford. Then comes the demand: Pay up, or become the next online viral sensation.

A recent spate of Chinese officials have found themselves ensnared by extortion schemes that leverage the public’s mounting disgust for wayward behaviour. But even those who have resisted wrongdoing are not immune. Aided by computer software, blackmailers sometimes copy and paste their quarry’s likeness into not-safe-for-work images that are synonymous with excesses of power.

The extortion boom comes at a time when many Communist Party members are begrudgingly enduring a government austerity campaign, pushed by President Xi Jinping himself, that has denied them the expensive, taxpayer-financed banquets and chauffeured sedans once considered the birthright of Chinese officialdom. More than 2,000 officials have been investigated and punished for violations from the campaign’s launch at the end of 2012 through the end of April, according to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s top anti-corruption agency.

Now, in addition to looking over their shoulders for anti-graft inspectors, civil servants must contend with blackmailers armed with honey traps, video cameras or worse:

 Photoshop. In Shuangfeng, a rural county in Hunan province, the authorities have arrested dozens of blackmailers, some of whom have used officials’ actual transgressions to demand payments and some of whom have simply used electronic manipulation to make misdeeds up. “Being a government official is a really high-risk profession,” said the deputy head of a provincial-level department in the central province of Shaanxi, who asked not to be identified to avoid scrutiny. Paranoia is a way of life, the official said, and many colleagues live in dread that their faces, appearing in flagrante delicto, will surface online and doom their careers.

Those involved in the shadowy industry of forged photography, he said, range from brazen crime syndicates seeking easy money to individuals seeking advantageous business contracts, though power-hungry officials extorting political gain from comrades are also “pretty common.”

“The scariest thing is that if you’re accused, the government can’t say anything,” the official said. “No one really cares if it’s true or false at the end of the day.” Such fears have been heightened by a string of high-profile blackmail cases. The Zhengzhou Daily newspaper reported last month that police in Hebei province broke up a crime ring of 80 fake journalists who made 1.1 million renminbi, or about $180,000, over the past five years threatening officials and companies with threats of publishing negative news.

In April, three former officials in China’s central Hunan province were indicted after they were caught attaching a bug and hidden camera to a water cooler in the office of the local party chief, Hu Jiawu. According to prosecutors, the three recorded Hu ‘violating Party discipline’ - usually a euphemism for bribery - and then threatened to expose him unless they were promoted. Rather than oblige, Hu reported them. He remains in his post.

The government in Shuangfeng has gone on the offensive against the blackmail scourge. For years, nobody seemed to mind the telephone fraudsters who gave the region a bad name. That is, until 2011, when local con artists upgraded their game with Photoshop and started targeting officialdom. 

In March, the local authorities began posting billboards and banners that framed the crackdown with language traditionally employed for family planning campaigns and exhortations to venerate the Communist Party. “The whole society must take action! Let’s engage a massive people’s war against blackmail crimes using Photoshopped obscene pictures,” they blared.

The propaganda juggernaut emerged as the Shuangfeng police announced that they had arrested 37 people in connection with 127 extortion cases in which $7.3 million was sought. In a meeting to plan the offensive, the local party secretary vowed “to fight to win or die,” according to the government’s website.

Even if the sloganeering has provided plenty of fodder for satirists online, residents acknowledged that the crackdown had been successful. Still, few think it will completely eradicate an industry they say has paid for many of the newly constructed three-story homes that dot the countryside here. “It’s called a 'people’s war’ but why would ordinary people help the government?” said a shopkeeper, who estimated that nearly half the villagers were involved in fraud and extortion schemes. “Government officials are known for being obsessed with gourmet cuisine, sex and money,” he added. “It’s a very lucrative industry.”

Ensuing scandal

Official extortion burst into public view last November, when a muckraking Chinese journalist posted video stills onto the Web that depicted Lei Zhengfu, a 54-year-old party secretary from the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, having sex with an 18-year-old woman. She later told investigators that a local property developer had paid her $48 to secretly record their intimate liaison.

 The developer then attempted to use the footage to blackmail Lei into handing over building contracts. The ensuing scandal felled at least 10 officials, including Lei, who is awaiting trial on corruption charges. 

“Lewd photos’ extortion has become the 'soft rib’ of officials,” read the headline of an official party editorial published online in the aftermath of the Chongqing affair. According to Zhu Ruifeng, the journalist who first published the images, the extortion racket plaguing Chinese officials has been made possible by the proliferation of social media, which gave anti-corruption advocates and their shadier entrepreneurial counterparts the ideal forum for exposing public servants’ moral failings.

Zhu has little sympathy for those caught up in the free-for-all. “Why would they become targets of extortion if their hands are clean?” he said, adding a colorful Chinese idiom for effect. “There’s a reason flies swarm over rotten eggs.”

He and others say that would-be targets have changed the way they pursue their leisure activities. Bureaucrats have begun personally booking hotel rooms for their lunchtime trysts and searching their female companions’ purses for recording devices before disrobing. “Officials are now getting more and more cautious,” he said.

A midlevel city official in Xi’an, home to the famed terra cotta warriors, confided recently that his own newfound vigilance was spurred by the appearance of an incriminating photo that showed him wearing a luxury watch he seldom displayed in public. Flustered by the accompanying demand for hush money, the official said he quietly approached a trusted colleague, who responded with shock that this was his first encounter with blackmail. “You only just received an extortion letter?” the man asked. The official asked to remain anonymous lest his confession bring unwanted attention.

He said he ignored the blackmailer’s demand, but became increasingly careful about showing off his wealth and connections. The watch in question is now safely hidden away. Even his relatives have tasted the bitter fruit of self-denial. The official recently decided a lavish wedding ceremony for his son with a lengthy guest list carried excessive risk. “It would have been too public,” he said. Instead he gave the couple money for a destination honeymoon, far from prying eyes.