Chinese bloggers trying to expose corruption say they are coming under increasing physical and verbal attack over their reports, in what anti-graft activists describe as another blow to efforts to make Chinese officials more accountable.
At least six self-styled whistleblowers have been assaulted or harassed in recent months, according to media reports, Internet postings and several of the bloggers who spoke to reporters.
Two unidentified men stabbed blogger Li Jianxin (李健新) in the face and splashed acid on his back on July 8. Li, now blind in his right eye, remains in hospital in Huizhou.
The attacks coincide with a government crackdown on activists demanding officials disclose their wealth, underscoring the limits of an anti-corruption push by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Xi, who became president in March, has called for action against graft, warning, as many Chinese leaders have before him, that the problem could threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) survival.
“If President Xi Jinping is serious about fighting graft, then he should ensure that these individuals are protected from such intimidation and persecution,” Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said.
Xi has said the “supervision of the people” is needed to fight corruption.
Indeed, Li said he and other whistleblowers were encouraged when they heard officials discuss “public opinion-based oversight” of power during China’s annual parliament session in March. Li said he thought that meant the government wanted the Internet to be a tool to weed out corruption.
“It was like a boost to the heart,” Li, 45, said from his hospital bed, where he awaits three more operations in addition to the three he has undergone. “It signified that the nation’s leaders attach importance and support our anti-corruption efforts on the Internet.”
Li, who runs a small restaurant, began posting accusations of official misconduct, illegal land grabs and nepotism in the city of Huizhou in Guangdong Province just over a year ago.
In March, someone tossed a brick through his daughter’s bedroom window. Li was not cowed.
“If they have the guts, they should take a gun and shoot me dead,” Li wrote in an online forum after that incident.
Li does not know who attacked him last month and police have not made any arrests. He vowed to continue his online reports.
The postings contain few documents to support his accusations and none of Li’s dozens of exposes have led to investigations. Much of his information comes from informants, Li said, adding that he had never been sued for slander.
Huizhou officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
While whistleblowing mostly occurs inside organizations in Western countries, in China it plays out on the Internet, a barometer of public opinion for the country’s middle-class and where people can reach a wide audience.
There are about three dozen Chinese whistleblowers who regularly post reports online under their own names about alleged corruption and misconduct, according to estimates based on the number of microblogs, and media reports.
In January, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, the party’s anti-corruption authority, said it welcomed public participation in fighting corruption if people used their real names on the Internet.
Authorities have investigated some online accusations since then and jailed several low-level officials.
The commission has a page on its Web site for tips from citizens, although it is unclear how many it has received recently. Between 2008 and last year, the commission said it received 301,000 whistleblowing reports online. Officials at the commission declined to comment.
Still, Beijing remains wary of giving people too much latitude and does not give legal protection to whistleblowers.
Indeed, Zhu Ruifeng (朱瑞峰), one of China’s most prominent whistleblowers, discovered last month the authorities had deleted his four microblog accounts. One was reactivated recently after a public outcry.
Zhu, who runs a whistleblowing Web site called “People Supervision Net” in Beijing, does not know who closed the accounts, but said he believes it was because of his recent postings on a government official who had spent lavishly on his mistress.
While he said he believed the party’s discipline commission was sincere about fighting corruption, other government departments did not always like what he did.
“Sometimes I’ll arouse the attention of the discipline commission. [The authorities] have a love-hate relationship with me,” he said.
Last year, Zhu released a video of Lei Zhengfu (雷政富), a district party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing, having sex with his much younger mistress.
CCP officials are banned from having mistresses, and the video came to symbolize to many the excesses of the ruling elite. Lei was sentenced in June to 13 years in jail for bribery.
Zhu said he had never been assaulted, but had received threats through microblog messages and e-mails.
In Dalian, microblogger Bi Meina has accused an official there of misconduct. She posted the claims on her microblog, but did not provide any documentation.
Since May, Bi said she has been followed and received calls and text messages from anonymous users, who have hurled insults.
“The distress is definitely there,” Bi said by e-mail. “I have thought of giving up ... and moving my family abroad.”
In Maoming, another Guangdong city, an official called Zhu Guoyu (朱國瑜) has sought to expose local corruption with his online reports. Nine officials have been convicted as a result of his postings, but his bosses do not like what he does.
“They try to keep me busy so I don’t have time to whistleblow,” he said.
In September last year, men in two cars chased him. In 2011, he was stabbed by unknown assailants, but survived.
Despite the threats faced by bloggers and whistleblowers, the tide will turn in their favor, Zhu Guoyu said.
“There are so many people watching, I believe paper can’t wrap up a fire,” he said, referring to a Chinese saying that means the truth cannot be hidden for too long.