Alongside working as a salesman in Northwest China's Gansu Province, Zhou Lubao has been devoting almost all his spare time to digging into the lives of local officials and disclosing their wrongdoings on Weibo and other online platforms.
The young man made a name for himself early this month after exposing the suspected corruption by Yuan Zhanting, mayor of Gansu's capital Lanzhou. Posting pictures as proof, he accused Yuan of possessing at least five expensive wristwatches, including one worth over 200,000 yuan ($32,000).
The provincial commission for discipline inspection sought to clarify the matter days later, saying three of the watches were purchased by Yuan himself and an Omega one was a fake.
However, Zhou considered the response unpersuasive and brought the affair to the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI). He provided more evidence of misconduct, including Yuan's possible involvement in embezzling funds intended for the construction of the city's rapid transit bus system and covering up a mining tragedy.
While waiting for further action from central authorities, he continues to unveil new evidence against the mayor. Zhou described his devotion as "a response to the new leadership's resolution in combating corruption."
Zhou is not the only one dedicating himself to grass-roots anti-graft efforts. After the 18th national Party congress, the Chinese Internet, mostly Weibo, has seen a surge of whistle-blowing against officials at all levels with diversified accusations. But behind the cyber craze, people also worry whether the trend could lead to true institutional improvement.
Whistle down the Web
"One week has passed." Luo Changping posted this Weibo entry on December 13, indicating that his real-name reporting against Liu Tienan, the head of the National Energy Administration, has yet to see results.
Addressing his exposure to the CCDI, Luo, an experienced investigative reporter, who now works as an deputy director of the Caijing magazine, on December 6 allegedly uncovered a series of illegal acts by Liu, who is also deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission.
According to the evidence he exposed, Liu fabricated his master's degree, colluded with a businessman in defrauding Chinese banks out of huge loans and sent death threats to a former mistress. With the effect of a bomb exploding in cyberspace, the tip-off, the first targeting a ministerial-level official, soon aroused wide attention.
The energy bureau labeled these accusations as "pure slander" hours later and claimed it would resort to legal means.
"What they said is not important. My purpose in disclosing the scandals was not to get them to respond," Luo told the Global Times. He admitted he was somewhat anxious while he was waiting, but remained optimistic the situation would be handled to his satisfaction.
"I believe it will be properly settled," said Luo. "After all, it's not a simple case. It targets a high-level official and will take some time to investigate based on certain procedures. It would be strange if he was brought down on the same day."
Compared to the tardy development of this high-profile case, whistleblowing directed at lower-level officials has mostly led to immediate action. Lei Zhengfu, the Party chief of Beibei district in Chongqing, was sacked just 63 hours after a video showing him having sex with a young woman was leaked online.
Zhu Lijia, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance, said this trend reflects a growing desire to participate in public affairs and the Web provides a perfect channel for such appeals. "The incorporation of external supervision in this way is important for anti-corruption campaigns."
Liao Ran, senior program coordinator of the Asia-Pacific department under Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based anti-corruption NGO, told the Global Times that fighting corruption online, particularly through social media, happens around the world with proven results.
During the 15th International Anti-Corruption Conference held in Brazil in November, fighting corruption via new technologies was an important topic of conversation, said Liao.
The latest online revelation was made by a group of 29 people in Xingtai, Hebei Province, who claimed that the city's mayor Liu Daqun was suspected of taking kickbacks to do with land leases and keeping mistresses.
Both Luo and Zhou said their efforts were somewhat encouraged by the new priority and working style of the new Party leadership, which stresses the eradication of bureaucracy and a crackdown on graft.
Echoing his predecessor Hu Jintao's warning that failure to curb corruption would cause the collapse of the Party, Xi Jinping, the newly-elected general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, has repeatedly underlined the importance of forging ahead with this drive.
On November 30, Wang Qishan, secretary of the CCDI, solicited advice from eight scholars on the fight against corruption. Ma Huaide, vice president of the China University of Political Science and Law who participated in the meeting, said he saw some changes this time.
This gathering took place soon after the Party congress, showing that the new central leadership values opinions from the public and experts, said Ma. He added that compared with similar meetings he attended in 2007 and 2009, specialists from a wider range of fields were invited this time.
What also impressed Ma was the attitude of the new anti-corruption chief, who asked the experts not to avoid any sharp views, saying that even online criticism was welcomed.
This encouraging trend can be highlighted by the fall of Li Chuncheng, then deputy secretary of the Sichuan Provincial Committee of the CPC who was removed from his position for discipline violations early this month. This was the first firing of such a high-ranking official since the new Party leadership took office.
Shen Yong, a government official in Sichuan's capital Chengdu, revealed on his Weibo that Li traded official posts for money and helped his wife obtain the top post at the local Red Cross organ.
However, both analysts and muckrakers said that despite this good start, whether the momentum can last with real support systems being put in place is more important.
China has multiple-level corruption prevention and fighting organs and enacts severe laws to punish corrupt officials, yet these practices are still common.
"A person embezzling 100,000 yuan could already be condemned to life imprisonment, which is almost the harshest punishment in the world for such a crime," said Liao, "The reason why this evil trend can't be curbed is because the laws are not effectively enforced."
The Chinese mainland ranked 80th among 176 countries and regions in TI's latest corruption perceptions index published on December 5, scoring 39 out of 100.
While Internet private eyes are welcoming their wider recognition, their trade's troubles are also emerging.
Ma said the virtual nature of the Internet means that authenticity and accuracy of the clues can't be guaranteed, especially those coming from anonymous whistle-blowers.
It is clear that many Web users are eager to "consume" officials' scandals, but this also induces troublemakers to exaggerate the facts or even fabricate details.
Over the weekend, a 25-year-old man named Wang Xian reported on an online forum that Nie Yujie, a male deputy head with the Gaomi agricultural bureau in Shandong, coerced him into having sex five times. Wang claimed that Nie's actions "violated the spirit of the 18th Party congress" and asked the government to impose a severe punishment on him.
The spicy plot went viral almost instantly and prompted the discipline inspection authority to intervene.
Under mounting speculation that Wang was taking revenge on the official by taking advantage of this trend of online revelations, Wang admitted to the Global Times that he had sex with Nie willingly and regretted making the affair public.
He said his revelations were simply scare tactics as revenge for Nie not taking their relationship seriously.
Ma said that exposing scandals online has to be regulated but that authorities should be cautious when deleting posts or seeking to keep whistle-blowers quiet, as this would deter public participation.
Will improvements appear?
Luo said he hopes what he does will contribute to the overall improvement of the anti-corruption system.
His sentiment was echoed by Zhou. "It's just as if many flies were entering our house through cracks in the window, and all we could do was to spray them with pesticide. If screens are installed, the nuisances will not be able to sneak in," said Zhou.
In terms of effective mechanisms, the one that has gained the widest consensus is the disclosure of officials' assets.
Guangdong Province will start a pilot program requiring some county-level officials to declare and disclose their assets, but some people remain skeptical toward this move as previous similar attempts saw no effective results.
Some 60 scholars and lawyers recently wrote a joint letter, calling for the disclosure of assets owned by the 205 members of the CPC Central Committee.
Luo agreed that it's a good attempt to adopt top-down policy, which can produce good results.
"Apart from the assets of officials, what should be made transparent also includes government budgets and information concerning the use of taxpayer money, such as the bidding process for infrastructure projects," said Liao.
Some scholars also propose that discipline inspection departments be separated from the authority of Party committees, allowing them to more effectively supervise officials, especially those holding high-rank posts.
While Luo said it could be a good idea to integrate current organs, including those handling discipline inspection and supervision, corruption prevention as well as food, safety and drug supervision to form a complete system.
"But the premise is it has to be under the supervision of the National People's Congress, an independent judiciary organ and media," Luo said.
"I am not tired yet with my online whistle-blowing, but I know I will be some day. I believe a mature mechanism will have been put in place by then."