Exposing Corruption on the Internet: Illusory Victories?

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My colleague Lin Yang writes on the interet and corruption:

Chinese Netizens have seemingly scored another victory in the battle against corruption. An online campaign to expose the extravagant lifestyle of Zhou Jiugeng, head of a district real estate bureau in the city of Nanjing, led to his dismissal after someone posted a photo of Zhou in a meeting smoking 25-USD-per-pack cigarettes and wearing a watch that looked like a 14,000 USD Vacheron Constantin, Zhou was fired on the 28th for “expressing inappropriate opinions and spending office funds on luxury cigarettes.”
It’s not the first “victory” for the anti-corruption forces, who in the past year have repeatedly unleashed the power of their “human flesh search engine”, a mass-participation investigation to find out all the personal details of the subjects of internet posts. The most famous case would be Lin Jiaxiang, party secretary of the Shenzhen city Marine Affairs Bureau, whose drunken attempt to molest an 11 year old girl and subsequent obnoxious insults to the onlookers was captured on a surveillance camera and put on the internet. With outraged netizens around the country analyzing the video clip, Lin’s identity was soon revealed, and his supervisors at the central government level department had to hold a public press conference on the official result of investigation into the case.
But how much do such victories go to addressing the root cause of the corruption problem? Chinese Business View, a Chinese language paper based in Xi’an that’s famous for its sharp commentaries has a good piece on the Zhou Jiugeng incident, providing an alternative viewpoint to the usual hailing of the power of the people. The commentary questions the efficiency of these grassroots internet-based anti-corruption efforts. “It took millions of netizens a year to bring about the downfall of a few low-ranking officials. Once the enthusiasm of the netizens wears off, who will take over the anti-corruption campaign?” It also questions the performance of the disciplinary organs in the government, whose role is to carry out investigation and punishment of corruption. “Even after the Internet had already turned Zhou Jiugeng into a household name, our disciplinary officials still refused to look into the case, saying they had not received any official complaints about Zhou.”
Corrupt officials need more than the fear of a public lynching on the internet, And the cyberspace anti-corruption drive needs the backing of an official anti-corruption mechanism to carry on. Putting officials under internet scrutiny will not cure them of corruption. As the commentary argues, they can simply “acquire some acting skills—learn not to say anything that the public finds offensive and to hide their expensive cigarettes. It’s also not hard to ask their secretaries to put their expensive cigarettes in cheap packs.” Without genuine systematic efforts to declare war on corruption, the internet anti-corruption victories could be just an illusion.