Jun 19, 2013

    China officials more wary of blackmail

    A RECENT spate of Chinese officials have found themselves ensnared by extortion schemes that leveraged on the public's mounting disgust for wayward behaviour. But even those who have resisted wrongdoing are not immune.

    Aided by computer software, blackmailers sometimes copy and paste their quarry's likeness onto not-safe-for-work images that are synonymous with excesses of power.

    The extortion boom comes at a time when many Communist Party members are begrudgingly enduring a government austerity campaign, pushed by President Xi Jinping himself, that has denied them the expensive, taxpayer-financed banquets and chauffeured sedans once considered the birthright of Chinese officialdom.

    Now, in addition to looking over their shoulders for anti-graft inspectors, civil servants must contend with blackmailers armed with honey traps, video cameras or, worse, Photoshop.

    "Being a government official is a really high-risk profession," said the deputy head of a provincial-level department in the central province of Shaanxi, who asked not to be identified to avoid scrutiny.

    Paranoia is a way of life, the official said, and many colleagues live in dread that their faces, appearing in flagrante delicto, will surface online and doom their careers.

    Official extortion burst into public view last November, when Chinese journalist Zhu Ruifeng posted video stills on the Web that depicted Lei Zhengfu, a 54-year-old party secretary from Chongqing, having sex with an 18-year-old woman.

    She later told investigators that a local property developer had paid her US$48 (S$60) to secretly record their liaison. The developer then attempted to use the footage to blackmail Lei into handing over building contracts.

    The ensuing scandal felled at least 10 officials.

    "Officials are now getting more and more cautious," Mr Zhu said.

    A mid-level city official in Xi'an confided recently that his own newfound vigilance was spurred by the appearance of an incriminating photo that showed him wearing a luxury watch he seldom displayed in public.

    He said he ignored a blackmail attempt, but became increasingly careful about showing off his wealth. The watch in question is now safely hidden away.

    Even his relatives have tasted the bitter fruit of self-denial. The official recently decided that a lavish wedding ceremony for his son with a lengthy guest list carried excessive risk.

    Instead, he gave the couple money for a destination honeymoon, far from prying eyes.