China’s government has many international concerns, from the volatility of neighbor and ally North Korea to the bilateral ties with the U.S. However, it's just as worried about harnessing its watchdog netizens. While China’s central government still holds overarching power, thanks to censorship, over the country's growing population of bloggers, the power of the Chinese netizen is unmatched when it comes to uncovering corruption.
According to state-run Xinhua News Agency, China’s new media platforms, including online microblogs, forums and the nation’s most popular social media site Weibo, were responsible for uncovering 156 confirmed cases of corruption from 2010 to 2012. In a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the contribution of China’s new media in revealing corruption has far exceeded that of traditional newspapers and television, practically doubling it.
Most of the cases had to do with official corruption, regarding abuses of power, violations on regulations and protocol, infidelity and other ethical issues. While China’s central government is worried about the growing power that netizens have, its efforts have been essential in cracking down and assisting the government on anti-graft concerns that were expressed by Xi Jinping when he took the helm as president in March.
China’s bloggers and Internet-savvy citizen journalists have embraced their role as an anti-corruption force. The report also claims that citizens have increased awareness of pressing issues as a result of the new media platforms, and the reach of such Internet-based platforms makes participation and crowdsourced information much easier to find. China’s netizens are also responsible for pushing local stories to the nation’s front page. Smaller, local crimes and injustices are scrutinized on a much larger scale as a result of sharing capabilities. Many times, netizen reaction to Weibo "trending topics" will force real government conversation or at least accountability.
Take Zhou Lubao, 28, one of Weibo’s active cyber-investigators, a household-appliance sales representative when he’s not fighting corruption. Zhou was responsible for revealing on Weibo that the mayor of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province in northwest China, was using ill-gotten funds when he noticed him sporting five different luxury watches. Zhou’s investigative efforts were eventually picked up by mainstream media.
But citizen journalism can be a rsiky business in China. According to a report in the Guardian, Zhou was digging a little too deep. Zhou went to Lanzhou to personally file a complaint with the public prosecutor over his findings on the local mayor. When the prosecutor warned Zhou that he could be arrested, Zhou fled the area and hid out in neighboring Qinghai province. During the Chinese New Year festivities, Zhou tweeted about a former member of the Party’s central standing committee in charge of security, saying, “We must eliminate that old cancer, Zhou Yongkang.” (No relation; they happen to share a last name.) His account was promptly shut down.
Though Zhou eventually resurfaced and continued investigative work, he is now very careful not to step over any lines that would put him at risk of arrest. “They would have to prove that I’ve committed a crime, but I’m out in the open. They are the ones working in the shadows. But who knows, they may catch me right after this call,” he said in a telephone interview with the Guardian.
“When young people like me fight corruption, we are also claiming our rights and showing there is still hope in our society.”