The Mistress-Industrial Complex

Is adultery the key to solving China’s corruption problem?

Guang Niu/Getty Images
Guang Niu/Getty Images

BEIJING – Among the many notable features of the latest grainy sex tape circulating on the Chinese Internet — a video of former Chongqing official Lei Zhengfu atop his then-18-year-old mistress in 2007 perhaps the most intriguing is the angle from which it was shot. Someone placed a rudimentary video camera, or perhaps a camera phone, on a low dresser adjacent to a hotel bed and pointed it upwards. The pale slender woman is barely visible, but Lei’s face, grunting in the throes of pleasure, is in full view.

As the amateur porn made waves online after it surfaced on Nov. 20, Chongqing’s Commission for Discipline Inspection, the organ responsible for dealing with corruption and wrongdoing among party members, determined that the man in the video was indeed Lei. (He initially denied it, claiming Photoshop mischief.) Removed from his post as district party secretary on Nov. 23, Lei is now being investigated for party discipline infractions and graft in the second-raciest scandal to erupt in Chongqing this year, after the March fall of the municipality’s former party boss Bo Xilai.

Conjugal entanglements of power, politics, money, and men, usually involving multiple sex partners, are hardly new in China, but how this video came to light was novel: Zhu Ruifeng, a 31-year-old former investigative journalist at the respected Guangzhou province newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, who now runs an anti-corruption website called "People’s Supervision" in Beijing, posted the footage online in mid November. He represents a new trend: watchdogs who both understand that the Communist Party has a severe mistress problem, and realize that the problem can be used as a weapon in the fight against corruption.

Zhu, who obtained the video from a whistleblower inside the Chongqing police department, told Foreign Policy that he thinks the tape exists because a construction company bribed Lei with women to secure lucrative government contracts. To ensure greater leverage, Zhu says, the women were told to secretly videotape their encounters — hence the camera angle. (Chongqing’s foreign affairs department said on Monday the commission’s investigation is still ongoing, and that any relevant public updates will be made available via the government’s Weibo account.)

Once the lewd video went viral, both Western and Chinese media outlets covered the story. It wasn’t the first sex scandal to rock China, by any means, but the sharp contrast between the dour exterior of China’s officialdom culture, and its raunchy bedroom obsessions is still shocking. Even with heavy censorship, in recent years China’s English language state-run media have run enough salacious content to embarrass your mother: In August, the nationalistic tabloid Global Times ran a story about two male officials in Anhui province under scrutiny after photos of a five-person orgy in a hotel room circulated online. In 2010, China Daily ran diary excerpts from a Guangxi province official convicted of accepting bribes after his meticulous sex-cum-graft diaries were posted online. (Among the entries: "Womanizing is on the right track. It’s been a lucky year with women. I need to pay attention to my health with so many sex partners.") To be sure, details are often suppressed: When China’s former railway minister Liu Zhijun was deposed on corruption charges in February 2011, a leaked Central Propaganda Bureau memo instructed: "All media are not to report or hype the news that Liu Zhijun had 18 mistresses."

The Chongqing sex-bribes-videotape saga comes to light just days after Xi Jinping, who was appointed Communist Party chairman in mid-November, made anti-corruption pledges a centerpiece of an important speech: "Much evidence tells us that worsening corruption’s only outcome will be the end of the party and the end of the state. We must be vigilant," he told top officials in Beijing; Xi also likened graft to "worms breeding in decaying matter." Whether or not Xi’s intentions are genuine, similar pledges have been repeated for more than a decade. So how, exactly, do you crack down on corruption in China?

Li Chengyan, a professor at Peking University’s Research Center for Government Integrity, has an idea: Involve the mistresses. No, seriously. A staunch party loyalist, he is researching the role of kept women, or ernai, as whistleblowers, intentionally or otherwise. "The phenomenon of mistresses is so common in Chinese history, but the scale today is really unprecedented," says Li, who thinks the problem is caused by loopholes in the discipline system and lack of effective supervision. "If we examine corrupt officials, about 80 to 90 percent of them also have mistresses."

Li sees a connection between China’s modern concubine culture and its runaway graft: the "emperor psychology" of the unrestrained: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. When officials have absolute power, they become bold to ignore the law and social norms and do everything they like." This ultimately hurts the party: "It’s misleading to think that keeping a mistress is not a big problem — that it won’t affect the official’s main work, records, and achievements. Temptation brings temptation."

But where others see moral hazard, Li also sees a silver lining. "Many corruption investigations begin with information or lawsuits from the mistresses. Why not? They have direct knowledge of the officials’ behavior." Eleven mistresses of a Shaanxi province official — many of them wives of his subordinates — exposed his dealings in 2007 after their families stopped prospering. The mistress of a former Navy vice-admiral ratted him out in 2006 after he rebuffed demands for continued financial support for her and their secret love child. "She wanted compensation to buy a house and raise the kid as a condition to end the relationship," says Li. "Changes in relationship status always produce unstable results." More tragically, an official in Shandong province was executed in 2007 for graft and murder after his former mistress died in a peculiar car-bomb explosion, and a police investigation turned up explicit photos of the estranged couple.

Zhu, the investigative journalist, says he hopes to break the cycle where "officials protect each other" from leaks about their bribe-taking and outsized sex lives. One tape at a time?

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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