Who knew that Liang Wenyong’s prodigious appetite would make him so famous? On Sept. 16, Liang, the Communist Party chief of Gushanzi, a small town in northern China’s Hebei province, was seen in a secretly shot video enjoying an extravagant banquet. The 4-min. 44-sec. video clip shows Liang ordering lobster, crab and roast duck, drinking Wuliangye (a high-priced grain alcohol) and smoking Zhonghua cigarettes (the $100-a-carton brand coveted by Chinese officials).
At the end of the video, Liang is heard opining about his fellow Chinese: “Their bowls are filled with rice, their mouths are full of pork, but after they finish their meals, they start to criticize the government … This is the virtue of the Chinese masses; they are very cheeky and you do not need to respect them.” On Sept. 16, the video, the origins of which are unknown, went viral on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging service that has acted as a kind of clearinghouse of official malfeasance.
Chinese officials’ outlandish spending and widespread corruption have long disgusted citizens. When Xi Jinping, China’s leader, came into power last November, he publicly called for a revamp of communist officials’ working styles in order to win back the “lost trust” of the masses. Xi called for fewer empty words from cadres, less obsequious treatment of top leaders and, most important of all, fewer ostentatious banquets. He also vowed to weed out corrupt officials from low-ranking “flies” to high-ranking “tigers.”
But Xi’s campaign, which has dampened certain types of luxury spending in China, can’t be popular with officials who can no longer enjoy lavish lifestyles with such abandon. Liang’s comment about the Chinese proletariat is a reflection of new tensions.
Like a slew of other scandals involving officials, the video of Liang’s feast triggered an outcry in cyberspace. By the end of Sept. 16, more than 9,000 people had reposted the video and expressed their disgust with Liang. “If we were to have the right to elect officials, would they dare say such things?” one person posted on Weibo.
This time, the reaction was rapid. Hours after he became infamous on Weibo, Liang was ousted from power by his superiors and the Gushanzi government promised to launch an education campaign to make sure all local officials will obey Xi’s decree.
But even as officials in Hebei scrambled to do damage control, opinion makers on Weibo were spooked by a crackdown on bloggers who have commented on the very same type of attitudes and behavior exhibited by Liang. In recent weeks, dozens of bloggers, from rich entrepreneurs to ordinary voices, have been silenced by Chinese authorities, with some detained on what feel like politically motivated charges. Speaking out too loudly on the Internet, it seems, may be just as dangerous as ordering a sumptuous feast on the government’s tab.