A 5-year-old sex tape of an 18-year-old woman allegedly hired by developers to sleep with a city official is causing yet another scandal for China's ruling Communists in the city formerly led by fallen politician Bo Xilai.
The 50-something official, Lei Zhengfu, was fired from his position as district party secretary after the video, an apparent extortion attempt, went viral earlier this month and his jowly, pop-eyed mug became the butt of numerous Internet caricatures. But the scandal may still be growing, as a whistleblowing former journalist says he may release similar tapes of more city officials soon.
The party is already reeling from the scandal that triggered Bo's purge and further battered the party's reputation in the public mind. Chongqing, the city that he ran, has been depicted by prosecutors and state media as rife with cover-ups, abuse of power and corruption. Bo's wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman, and Bo himself faces allegations of corruption and obstruction of justice in the murder case.
News of the sex tape, which was apparently shot in 2007 but only leaked this month, comes as China's newly installed leadership ramps up anti-corruption efforts as it deals with a steady stream of bribery and graft cases that it fears has undermined its authority.
The tape exploded on the Chinese Internet Nov. 20 when screenshots of it were uploaded by a Beijing-based former journalist Zhu Ruifeng to his Hong Kong-registered website, an independent online clearing house for corruption allegations.
The lurid images, apparently taken secretly from a bedside table, show Lei having sex with a woman. Zhu told The Associated Press that the woman, whose face is not visible in the screen grabs, was hired by a construction company to sleep with Lei in return for construction contracts. The company later tried to use the tape to extort more business from Lei, he said.
Zhu says he obtained the video from someone inside the Chongqing Public Security Bureau who gave it on condition of anonymity. He said he was also given tapes implicating five other Chongqing officials but is trying to verify their content before releasing them.
Zhu said that after the blackmail attempt, Lei reported the case to Chongqing officials sometime around 2009, which led to the construction boss being jailed for a year on unrelated charges and the woman being detained for a month.
Xinhua reported Monday that Chongqing's corruption watchdog had pledged a thorough investigation of Lei, who was dismissed Friday, but said it had yet to formally receive a report about the allegations against Lei or the footage.
The China Daily in an editorial Tuesday said the case showed that the "Internet is worth being embraced by the country's corruption busters as a close ally."
It also called for greater transparency in handling this and other cases, and listed a few of the lingering questions that the salacious case has thrown up.
"Strangely, the mistress was once detained and the contractor jailed for blackmailing Lei," it said. "What had happened? ... These are crucial questions waiting to be answered."
With a younger set of incoming leaders announced this month in Beijing, the government is keen to show that those in power are worthy of their posts and that wrongdoers will be weeded out. In his first remarks to the press after being appointed as the new Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping vowed to tackle corruption.
The party's corruption watchdog underlined its zero-tolerance for graft on Monday.
"There is no place for corrupt figures to hide away within the party," the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a statement quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Many Chinese, however, are cynical about the allegations against high-profile party members and that they signal a true crackdown on corruption. Many think Bo was no more or less dirty than the average Chinese politician and that he was deposed not for his behavior but because he was on the losing end of factional power struggle.
Xiao Weilong, 30, an insurance salesman in Beijing, bemoaned how "ordinary people can't do anything about" cases such as Lei's.
"These sorts of abnormal things have become the norm, and we don't have any say," he said Tuesday.
Zhu, the journalist who broke the Lei story, said the fact that his website had not been blocked despite the allegations it outlined was a possible sign that the government is more serious than in the past getting tough on corruption.
"Possibly what we are seeing is that the new leaders are perhaps taking steps toward enforcing the constitution, a sliver of a new dawn," he said.