There are many others in Chongqing, however, who are unavailable for comment these days.
The Communist Party secretary of Beibei District, Lei Zhengfu, couldn’t be reached. Authorities sacked him last month after a video emerged of him having sex with a woman identified as an 18-year-old mistress.
The film came from a Chongqing police official with the explanation that it was made in 2007 after the head of a construction company “gave” the woman to Lei as a bribe and then tried using their sexual relations to blackmail him, according to Zhu Ruifeng, an online activist and former journalist who released the recording.
Lei reported the blackmail effort to then-Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who in turn ordered his police chief to handle the situation, Zhu said, citing the account of his police source. The woman in the video was detained for 30 days and the developer jailed for a year, according to Zhu, who said he had records to back up the claim. No action apparently was taken against Lei.
It wasn’t possible to interview the former police chief, Wang Lijun. A court sentenced him in September to 15 years of prison on charges involving bribe taking, abuse of power and defection. During his time at a U.S. consulate in February, Wang is said to have told American officials that Bo’s wife was involved in the killing of a British businessman.
The wife, Gu Kailai, was similarly unreachable. After being found guilty of murder in August, she received a verdict of death with a two-year reprieve.
Bo disappeared from public in March. He’s almost certain to be tried and convicted, with state media accusing him of involvement in everything from corruption to having “maintained improper sexual relationships with a number of women.”
Beijing cites the punishments meted out after the lurid chain of events in Chongqing as proof that officials are made to answer for their misdeeds. But some analysts see the campaign as nothing more than political score-settling dressed in the language of a court system tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Bo, the charismatic son of a late party elder, was widely considered overly ambitious for the comfort of the status quo.
“They always claim they are fighting corruption . . . but the truth is they are fighting the corruption of outsiders” – those in other factions – said Pu Zhiqiang, a rights lawyer in Beijing. “If they punished everyone, no matter who they are, then the Communist Party would have collapsed a long time ago.”
Pu represents Ren Jianyu, a former village official who recently was granted early release from a Chongqing re-education-through-labor camp. He’d been sent there last year for posting online items that were critical of Bo Xilai’s administration. Although official media described that turn of events as an opportunity to re-examine the nation’s labor camp system, Pu scoffed at the prospects of serious reform.
“The sex tape and Ren Jianyu being put under re-education through labor, these sorts of things didn’t happen only in Chongqing; they are very common all over the country,” Pu said in a telephone interview.
The fact that the party allowed the Lei tape to linger without disrupting Zhu Ruifeng’s website raised eyebrows. So too did Zhu’s freedom to give interviews to foreign and domestic journalists in which he said he possessed more sex videos featuring Chongqing leadership.
As with the Ren case, state-controlled news outlets gave broad attention to the Lei story.
Zhu said in an interview that he was encouraged by senior leadership talk about moving against corrupt officials. The newly appointed general secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, in the past month has signaled a fierce campaign to come against official corruption, warning that it could threaten the existence of the party and the state.
Zhu hinted at doubts.
“Corruption in China is created by the system,” said Zhu, who favors black suits during interviews and keeps his laptop in reach.
When Hu spoke with McClatchy at the end of November, he was back in Beijing looking to submit more petitions, meet with reporters and do anything else he could think of to try to get assistance.
“The higher authorities have their policies, but the lower authorities have ways of getting around them,” Hu said, staring into his empty coffee cup at a downtown McDonald’s.
He added: “The local governments do not care about the common people. They rob them at will.”
Twelve days later, Hu sent a text message to follow up the conversation. He’d been detained for “illegal petitioning” in Beijing and sent back to Chongqing.
Researcher Joyce Zhang contributed to this report.