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A Tawdry Tale of Local Graft Becomes a China #MeToo Moment
March 29, 2021
The woman from a poor village was only 19 years old when she started a sexual relationship with a local police chief. Soon, she had trysts with other local leaders, including police and hospital officials.
Some of the men gave her money. A lot of it. By the time the authorities caught her and charged her with extortion, Xu Yan had received $573,000 from nine men, including eight officials, according to court documents. In December, she was sentenced to 13 years in prison and ordered to pay the money back, plus $869,000 in fines.
That could have been the end of what seemed to be another tawdry tale of sex and corruption. But when people online learned the details, they began to ask questions.
Why did Ms. Xu get such a long sentence? How did all of the men but one avoid prison time? Where did public officials from such a poor place get so much money? And around such powerful men, can a teenager from such a destitute area really say no?
Now, Ms. Xu’s plight has become China’s latest #MeToo moment. The Chinese internet has been consumed with talk about power, money and sex among Chinese officialdom. Even state media outlets have been overwhelmingly sympathetic to Ms. Xu, saying that the sentencing was too severe and that the court should look more closely at the men instead.
“Public opinion is paying attention to this case not only because it’s bizarre,” said a commentary in Banyuetan, an influential magazine that is controlled by Xinhua, the state news agency, “but also because it sheds some light on the capriciousness of power.”
Chinese women in media, universities and the private sector have joined the global movement against sexual assault and harassment in a country still mired in traditional notions of gender. Yet the country’s #MeToo movement has yet to penetrate where it may be needed most: China’s government.
Men dominate the country’s halls of power. Only one of the 25 members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, which makes many of the decisions that guide the country, is a woman. The party’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, has never had a female member since Communist China’s founding in 1949.
Ms. Xu offers further proof that powerful men in China use their positions to gain sexual favors. Some Chinese people attribute a saying to male government officials: “Female subordinates are there to be slept with.”
Aware of this perception, the Communist Party sometimes trumpets the sexual trespasses of top officials who fall from grace, describing in some detail their adultery and mistresses. They include Zhou Yongkang, who for 10 years ran China’s court and law enforcement systems; Ling Jihua, chief of staff for a former Chinese president; and many minister-level officials and heads of big state-owned enterprises.
In a survey of notices of corruption investigations, the Legal Daily, an official newspaper, found that 63 senior officials were accused of having “inappropriate sexual relationships” during a 16-month period starting in October 2017. The year before, China’s top prosecution agency listed the six main traits of senior officials prosecuted for corruption. No. 3: They “exchanged power for sex recklessly.” One top provincial official, the agency said, had a reputation for “working for his mistresses” — needing all the money he could get to maintain them.
Prosecutors who investigated Lai Xiaomin, the former chief of a state financial firm, accused him of keeping three tons of cash in his home — and of having more than one wife. State media said he kept more than 100 mistresses.
Yet the prosecutions and the investigations have yet to stop Communist Party officials from abusing their power. That comes down to the party’s unchecked authority in Chinese life. When it answers to nobody, nobody can hold it accountable.
The story of Ms. Xu and the local officials unfolded in Guanyun County, in the northern part of Jiangsu Province, far from the bright lights of the Shanghai suburbs to the south. The major employers include farming and textiles, mainly racy lingerie. The average annual income of urban residents last year totaled $4,658, or only about two-thirds of the national average.
Her story also shows how local officials handle allegations of wrongdoing, particularly when female government employees try to report their predatory male bosses to the authorities.
Ms. Xu began her first affair with a local police officer in 2014, according to prosecutors. Then she carried on relationships with several, they said. Court documents, which contain only the surname of the men in most cases, list a deputy chief of the Guanyun County police, three chiefs of local police stations, two hospital officials and one elementary school headmaster. At some point, she joined the police force as an auxiliary officer.
Court documents paint Ms. Xu as a manipulator who threatened the men with revealing the affairs unless they paid her, or telling them that she was pregnant. Still, the details sometimes suggest more complicated circumstances.
For example, different court documents fully identified one of the men, a police official, as Liu Xiangbing. Mr. Liu, 48, and Ms. Xu had a two-month affair in 2016, the document said. After they broke up, she asked for $30,000. Then they got back together in 2018, and broke up again. This time, according to the documents, he gave her $166,000.
Only Mr. Liu among the men was sentenced to prison, for the separate crime of taking bribes and only for two and a half years. The others were subject to unspecified party discipline but avoided criminal charges. Mr. Liu couldn’t be reached for comment, while the county government and the local courts did not respond to requests for comment.
The story got public notice when a lawyer posted the verdict online and raised questions about it. The document spread. Then, some social media users reported that Guanyun County officials had called them and asked them to delete the posts. The local court removed the verdict from a website run by China’s supreme court, saying that since Ms. Xu was appealing, the verdict should not have been uploaded.
Unfortunately for the Guanyun County officials, their attempts to hide the verdict drew only more attention.
Even Xinhua, the official news agency, chided local officials for trying to eliminate posts about the topic. “In the face of public skepticism, the local authorities should not resort to deleting posts,” the Xinhua commentary said. “A public response is the only correct measure.”
Ms. Xu’s fight is now playing out in public to a rapt audience.
Her parents hired two lawyers from Shanghai to represent her, but the local appeals court rejected their request to meet. Instead, it appointed two legal aid lawyers, according to a post by Ms. Xu’s uncle on Weibo, the social media service. He used a verified Weibo account, meaning the Chinese censors knew his identity and tacitly approved of the comments. The post was reposted more than 66,000 times and liked over a quarter of a million times in 24 hours.
Ms. Xu’s uncle said on the account that the government officials were socially respected figures in their 40s and 50s, far more senior and powerful than his niece. Their ages aren’t clear, since the verdict disclosed only their family names and their positions.
Online watchers of the trial also amplified an article by an online news outlet in Sichuan earlier this month that said it had interviewed Ms. Xu’s father. According to the article, her father accused local authorities of making her a scapegoat and asked why they hadn’t come forward earlier.
The outlet didn’t name him, and his comments couldn’t be corroborated, though her uncle quoted it approvingly in a Weibo post. The news site deleted the article a few hours later without explanation. Still, a hashtag citing the article got 130 million views within 12 hours on Weibo.
Even as people online cheer Ms. Xu’s appeal, many acknowledge that she has a tough fight ahead. They fear she will become the latest victim of the government’s drive to prove itself right. They also believe that, in the dark corners of government offices, many female employees will have to continue putting up with their bosses’ sexual advances.
“This is not the first time this type of thing has happened,” one Weibo user wrote, “nor will it be the last time.”