After the crash got their attention, angry and resourceful Chinese bloggers dug up pictures to document the portly Shaanxi provincial chief’s expensive timepiece collection. They accused Yang Dacai of abusing his position to get rich — an increasingly common refrain in a country where corruption is rampant — and argued that no official at his salary level could afford such luxury goods.
This month, in a nod to the online pressure, local government officials confirmed that Yang was under investigation.
China’s “netizens” have grown in force in recent years, collaborating via Twitter-like microblogs. And they have found easy pickings among their luxury-flaunting local leaders.
The problem has gotten so bad that China’s central government announced new rules this summer limiting the purchase of luxury goods “above certain standards.” The rule, however, will likely have little effect, since it applies to agencies as a whole rather than individual officials.
With a once-in-a-decade leadership change approaching this fall and the party’s image already tainted by a series of other scandals, top leaders of the Communist Party are especially nervous.
And yet, despite all that, many officials still seem to be drawn like moths to the gleam of the luxury watch.
“It is a sign of having face, or status. Chinese officials just need that,” said one blogger, who is China’s best known chronicler of officials’ watches. Under the facetious pseudonym “General Secretary of Huaguoshan” — a reference to an authority-challenging monkey king of legend — he has examined thousands of snapshots and pinpointed the cost and make of watches belonging more than 300 officials over the past two years.
“I would estimate half of the officials who wear watches usually wear the expensive kind,” he said, under the condition of anonymity because of threats he said he has received from the government. The most popular seem to be the Constellation line by Omega, Integral by Rado and La Grande by Longines, he said.
It’s only natural for people to ask questions, he pointed out, when some officials’ collections are worth well more than their annual salary.
Facing his accusers
The trouble began for Yang late last month, when he responded to the horrific highway accident. Three of 39 passengers survived when their double-decker bus collided with a methanol tanker truck. And yet, in a picture taken by news photographers soon after, Yang appeared to be grinning ear to ear.
The image was circulated by thousands of outraged bloggers. Then, more photos emerged, diverting people’s attention and scorn from his grin to his posh wrist wear. Online appraisals of his collection reached as high as $60,000 — far beyond the typical salary for officials at his level.