By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 31, 2010; 8:01 PM
BEIJING - If some of the headlines from the past few weeks in China were turned into a reality television show, the result might merit the title "Communist Officials and Rich Kids Behaving Badly."
Extremely badly, in some cases, and with tragic consequences.
On Dec. 8, Zhang Hongbin, a 44-year-old married deputy mayor of a district in Anhui province, allegedly strangled his 26-year-old mistress, then drove more than 300 miles to another province with her body in the back seat before turning himself in to police.
On Dec. 16, Li Guangsheng, a local party official in Hubei province who is 46 and married, allegedly argued with his 34-year-old mistress, who was pregnant with twins and had demanded that Li marry her. According to police, Li strangled the woman, put her body in a leather bag filled with stones and dropped it off a bridge into a river. He then allegedly used the woman's cellphone to text fake messages to her boss saying she needed some time off.
Just a few months earlier, in July, Xie Zaixing, 48, a local Communist Party chief in Zhejiang province, was sentenced to death for fatally choking his young mistress, chopping up her body and dumping her remains into a river.
And on Dec. 5, Gu Qingyang, a county postmaster in central Henan province, was driving drunk late at night on the wrong side of the road when, police say, he plowed into a group of seven teenagers walking along the road, killing five of them instantly.
Such incidents have deeply embarrassed China's ruling Communist Party, which promotes itself on its Web site as the "faithful representative" of the Chinese people. In several of the cases, the mistresses had threatened to expose the officials for corruption.
Critics, including academics and the growing community of online activists, say the incidents illustrate a widespread sense of impunity among powerful local party officials. The rising public anger over official misdeeds, some add, threatens the leadership's goal of maintaining "social harmony."
"These incidents weaken the government's credibility little by little," said Li Datong, a social commentator and former editor of the China Youth Daily's weekly supplement. "It's like a fire in a wood pile: A small incident can easily trigger a big mass incident during a time of social unrest. It's a very dangerous situation, which is why the government spends heavily to maintain social stability by paying large sums of hush money to the victims' families."
On Wednesday, in an apparent bid to stay ahead of the problem of vice in its ranks, the party issued its first white paper on corruption, saying graft remains "still very serious," despite the punishment of 113,000 officials in 2010 through November. It said the party would not cede the anticorruption fight to anyone.'My father is Li Gang!'
As bad as the behavior of some local Communist officials has been, other recent incidents involving young people and their fast-driven cars have also put a media spotlight on China's growing income disparity and the widely held view that the children of the new elite think they are above the law.
The case of Yao Jiaxin, 21, a student at the Xi'an Conservatory of Music, inspired particular outrage. In late October, Yao, driving a Chevrolet Cruze, knocked down a woman on a bicycle and kept going. But when he saw the woman was still alive and looking at his license plate, police said, Yao got out of his car and stabbed the woman until she died. When he was caught later, he allegedly told police that "the peasant woman would be hard to deal with."
Also in October, a 22-year-old student, Li Qiming, hit two female students, killing one, while driving his Volkswagen Magotan through the campus of Hebei University. Li jumped out of his car and tried to flee, and when police captured him, he began shouting, "My father is Li Gang!" Li Gang is a senior public security official in the district where the campus is located.
Both cases have attracted widespread attention on Internet forums, and "My father is Li Gang!" has become a favorite online catchphrase to denote the spoiled children of China's new rich flaunting their sense of privilege.
Liu Junning, an outspoken academic and government critic, said that ordinary people seize on these traffic incidents in online forums and chat groups because they offer an opportunity - rare in China's closed political system - to vent their frustration.
"These young princelings are so arrogant, and they don't know why people are unhappy with them," Liu said of the rich youths. "People have no chance to express their unhappiness, except when a car accident happens."Posting grievances online
Chinese Internet users have also used online forums, with the anonymity they afford, to document cases of corruption and abuse by local officials. In some instances, it was the spurned mistresses who posted their grievances online.
In October, party officials in Guangdong province said they began investigating Chen Yachun, the married vice mayor of Maoming city, after a woman claiming to be his longtime mistress posted photographs of a naked, pudgy, middle-aged man who appeared to be Chen, along with an account of how he had duped her with a fake divorce certificate. The woman said Chen began an affair with her in 2003 while they were attending a party training session. He was 51 and she was 27.
In March, Han Feng, who was head of sales for the tobacco monopoly in the Guangxi autonomous region, was arrested in connection with taking bribes, after purported excerpts from a racy sex diary he kept were posted online.
Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology who researches social issues, said the string of incidents has made the party a "national laughingstock" and undercut the government's ongoing efforts to curb pornography and public indecency.
"The recent cases show Chinese officials' ethics and moral principles have nearly collapsed," Hu said. "Officials embezzling and keeping mistresses are the problems that people hate most. That's why people don't support or have any interest in responding to the government's anti-pornography campaign, because the officials themselves have more serious problems."
Staff researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.