China's Answer to Anthony Weiner: A New Wave of Digital Political Sex Scandals

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A social-networking page of Chinese politician Xie Zhiqiang, whose communications with his mistress were exposed on the Internet

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in the Economic Observer.

A new form of public entertainment has also landed in China: the digital political sex scandal. The starring role, as always, goes to a respectable, married middle-aged man in an important position. The script includes the usual wealth of spicy details to prolong the pleasure.

Take the hapless Xie Zhiqiang, director of Jiangsu province's Bureau of Health. Someone told him that e-mails and texting were old hat and that he should get into Twitter-style microblogging. They neglected to mention that his updates would be visible to everyone. Xie's communications with his mistress, a married woman, were laid bare for all to see, including the meeting time, hotel-room number and preliminary discussions of what they'd be busy doing. For the delighted readers, it was a carnival. Not only that, but Xie told his paramour to bring along any receipts she had so he could get them refunded.

The municipal government and the commission for discipline promptly intervened, immediately suspending Xie from his position and placing him under investigation for corruption. Online supporters expressed sympathy for the unfortunate bureaucrat, convinced he was truly in love with the woman, and just an idiot when it came to new technology. Some were even inclined to forgive his attempts to claim expenses with his dodgy invoices.

In another case, Liu Ning, a section chief in the local administration of the city of Guangzhou, got in the habit of joining Internet chat rooms in which participants are naked, but their faces are hidden. As you might guess, in Liu's case his face was clearly visible. Embarrassment is painful but rarely fatal.

Then there's the case of Han Feng, director of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau in Guangxi province, who was using his elevated status to enjoy the favors of no fewer than six female subordinates. However, a disloyal husband should always beware of revenge. Han's private diary mysteriously found its way online, dripping with saucy details. After each encounter with one of his ladies, he wrote a blow-by-blow account — what he called his hunting bounty. These appeared on the Web, and became very popular reads.

Going back to Xie's situation, while many Westerners would think right away of recently disgraced former U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner, the Chinese thought first of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Looking back, we understand that in party politics, a President's moral flaws will be ruthlessly attacked by the opposition party. The U.S. Congress started impeachment proceedings, and the Republicans were eager to kick Clinton out.

But at a crucial juncture, Hillary Clinton saved her husband by publicly supporting him, so changing the minds of those who had been in favor of his ouster. Clinton kept his job not because Americans accept lax moral standards in their officials. On the contrary, because of the media muckraking in party politics, the public sets a very high moral threshold in selecting officials. And even more importantly, in the Clinton affair, this "philandering" President was not guilty of abusing his powers: Lewinski did not get a job in the White House after her internship ended.

By contrast, Xie's affair has provided some conclusive evidence that this director-valentine offered to reimburse his lover's invoices for personal purchases. This is corruption. Most people who sympathize with him are basing their reasoning on their presumption that Xie is indeed corrupt, but not to an extreme degree. He was only trying to cheat on a few expense claims. The biggest grief would be that this kind of tolerance becomes the common public attitude.

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