Lujiang authorities in Anhui Province denied Thursday that the people shown in a slew of raunchy photos circulating online were local government officials.
Pictures of so-called "comrades in charge" of the county are "malicious slander," the publicity department of the Lujiang county committee of the Communist Party of China clarified in a statement.
Those behind the smear campaign will be held legally responsible, a statement posted on the county's official Sina Weibo account warned.
Photos featuring three naked men and two women in a hotel were shared extensively among Weibo users on Thursday. Wang Minsheng, Party secretary of the county, was accused of leading the "sex party" after his personal photo was posted alongside the images for comparison.
"We are all furious about this rumor. At first we suspected the photo was modified in Photoshop, but later we found the original source," Zhang Qi, director of the Internet publicity office of the county, told the Global Times.
In the official announcement, a Web link was provided as the source of the pictures. The post - in a Changsha-based forum - described the scene as group sex among three couples in southwestern Kunming, Yunnan Province.
Wang told the People's Daily Online that he was slandered and that he suspected the matter was related to a corruption case the county is handling.
A police officer with the Lujiang county public security bureau told the Global Times that the case was reported Thursday morning and is under investigation.
He did not confirm reports indicating that the suspect has been located in Shanghai.
The perpetrator could face a charge of libel or infringement of reputation if the Lujiang officials have indeed been framed, regardless of their intent, Du Peng, a lawyer with the Beijing Guiyin Law Firm, told the Global Times.
Though the truth has yet to be brought to light, the incident clearly reflects the public's increasing discontent and distrust toward government officials, said Ren Jianming, a professor with the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University.
"There is a simmering hatred for officials, and some undisciplined officials have obviously undermined the image of the group," Ren told the Global Times, adding that only closer scrutiny of officials could improve public trust.
The country is seeing an increasing number of blackmailing cases using compromising photos or videos of officials as threats. Some fear that slanderous tricks could be used as a weapon to defame officials, regardless of whether the accused officials are actually in the pictures.
An Internet user named Anhui1234567q published an online statement late Thursday apologizing to Wang. He said he saw a series of photos online and thought a man in the photo looked liked the Lujiang Party chief. He said he did not realize the serious consequences and asked for Wang's forgiveness..