CCP Sex Scandal + Tsinghua Polling on Foreign Policy
Note to self: Don’t run an SOE and hold hands in a mall with your mistress
The main character of Chinese social media this week is Hu Jiyong 胡继勇, an executive director of a PetroChina subsidiary. Street fashion photographers — not papparazzi but just a common occurrence around popular shopping malls — caught him strolling in Chengdu while holding hands with a Ms. Dong, later confirmed to be his mistress and a PetroChina employee. The footage is quite something:
Hu and Dong have both been removed from their roles at PetroChina, and Hu is under disciplinary investigation. In the eyes of the Chinese public, which is accustomed to online virality as a tool to expose unscrupulous bureaucrats, SOE executives are no different from public servants in terms of expected accountability.
The event has also triggered a broader debate over privacy and the pitfalls of online vigilantism in the name of anti-corruption. Netizens have now dug up both Hu and Dong’s phone numbers, home addresses, entire career trajectories, and even the dress Dong was wearing; screenshots of their private social media posts are everywhere; and viral photos of a scantily clad Dong have invited public scrutiny. Life in the digital panopticon is especially treacherous for women, and there have been a few tragic cyberbullying scandals in China in recent months.
Walking in a very public location and grabbing the hand of a public official just as you walk past street photographers is a particularly bold move. I liked this commentary from a random vlogger on BiliBili:
Without Dong quite literally performing for the limelight, it’s actually hard to say whether Hu’s scandal would have eventually been exposed. The way I’m looking at it, whether it’s booking hotel rooms [Chinese euphemism for extramarital sex] or this, this is obviously not their first rodeo. People around him have to have known for a while. Flies don’t land on fresh eggs. Why is it that no one reported this? No one at his job wants to offend people, especially not their superior. Hu is their director, so no one dares to touch him, right? That’s how you keep something like this under the cover for this long.
And why did this scandal emerge now? The woman was born around 1995, so she’s quite young, and her family is apparently wealthy. That means she’s probably pretty progressive and isn’t afraid of much. If she wants to show off her boyfriend, so what? Of course she doesn’t want to keep the relationship on the down-low. [In the video] the brightly-dressed woman is extending her hand towards the guy. From the old dude’s perspective, if he just slaps the hand away, that’s clearly offensive and humiliating to her. You have to satisfy the mistress’s vanity. That’s why he held her hand [in front of cameras] and let his entire life fall apart.
It’s not that I want these kinds of morally questionable things to proliferate in society, but to already-involved mistresses like Dong who just can’t keep it under wraps: please do keep begging for attention. That’s the only way we can bust these bad guys and improve society.
On a recent episode with Stephen Kotkin, he said:
You can’t be half Communist, just like you can’t be half pregnant. So the Party is either a monopoly, or it begins to unravel. There’s no political-reform equilibrium.
[Let’s say] you begin to open up the party, you begin to say, “Okay, let’s have debate inside the Party, let’s have some opening. Let’s maybe even have some competitive elections inside the party.” And what happens? People come forward and they say, “I don’t want the Communist Party. I want another party.” And the Party officials say, “No, no, no — that’s not what we’re allowing. We’re only allowing debate inside the Party. We’re keeping the Communist Party monopoly; we’re just liberalizing it a little.”
The same applies for transparency and investigative journalism. Chinese reporters, if they were allowed to dig and publish, would unearth all sorts of incredibly unseemly stuff that would surely shake people’s faith in the Party. After all, the relative freedom to uncover official misdeeds allowed in the Hu era helped convince Xi that the Party needed to crack down both on corruption in the system and reporters who helped expose it. So, for now, what we’re left with is glimpses under the curtain when officials are too stupid to hide their misdeeds.
Check out my full podcast with Stephen Kotkin below:
Irene—Tsinghua Survey Says:
On May 26, Tsinghua University’s Center for International Security and Strategy (a think tank founded by former deputy foreign minister Fu Ying 傅莹 released a report titled “Chinese Outlook on International Security,” which surveys 2,662 Chinese respondents’ views on the international environment. The survey, while imperfect, provides very useful grounding for some assumptions we often make about Chinese public opinion on foreign policy. The respondents’ demographics reflect the country in terms of gender, age, urban/rural residence, and region, but the Tsinghua researchers did not control for income or education (though participants were asked about their education level). Some observations:
Positive energy wins out. A decisive majority of people are convinced that China’s global influence has grown (90.4%), support globalization (68%), and believe that China’s international security environment will further improve (71.7%). Xi’s foreign policy agenda has received an A+ verdict domestically. This is especially meaningful when we take into account that 62% of respondents said international security has a somewhat or very great impact on their own lives. Foreign policy is a real bread-and-butter issue for Chinese citizens, as it affects their economic conditions, culture, media, and life choices. Only on the subject of international aid does there seem to be strong opposition: more than half of the respondents believe China sends too much aid abroad, perhaps an expression of frustration given current economic challenges.
The report should make us a little more skeptical of the idea that Chinese public opinion on international affairs is in a chokehold of toxic militancy. The rosy side of nationalism has broader appeal. More people buy into the narrative of a rising China than they do anti-Western sentiments, despite these two being portrayed as two sides of the same coin. Only 36% of respondents say US-China tensions are mainly America’s fault. 59.1% view the US unfavorably — while 83% of Americans view China unfavorably. 84% of Chinese respondents want to welcome more foreigners to the country, and 75.6% want more Chinese students to go to Europe and America.
Even in the age of social media, we shouldn’t underestimate the influence of traditional state outlets. On the question of “How do you learn about international security?” 38.6% picked state-run media: Xinhua, China Central Television, or People’s Daily. (The “CGTN” in the chart below is a weird mistranslation: the Chinese report says 央视 aka. CCTV, which is the actual domestic network Chinese people watch, whereas CGTN is the foreign-language platform targeting overseas audiences.) This far outnumbers any other source of information, including social media. Just like how Americans grow up learning about the world on CNN, Chinese people associate serious international news with the prestige of CCTV and Xinhua. We should still take the foreign policy positions of major state media as more broadly representative than viral military influencers on Douyin. The reliance on state media also partly explains why on Ukraine, 80.1% of the respondents said that the US and Western countries are most responsible for the current conflict. The NATO expansion argument is the line pushed by every major state-owned outlet.
Personal backgrounds, especially education, deeply shape how Chinese people see the international environment. In the absence of disaggregation by income, education level is probably the most helpful stand-in for socioeconomic class in this survey. Those with college and postgraduate degrees are more likely to support international engagement on all fronts, less likely to blame the US entirely for US-China tensions, and more pessimistic about the international security environment.
But there’s one interesting detail: those who have had the least education (and who are likely to be quite low-income) are also most likely to blame their own country for bilateral tensions.
Might we question the reliability of this study? While it’s impossible for us to know if the data is skewed, one giveaway, to me, lies in the framing of the final question. Respondents were asked, “What is the most important issue in the Ukrainian crisis?” and these were the options: “impact of the war on civilian life,” “Chinese people’s safety and economic interests in the Ukraine,” “impact on the global energy supply,” “Russia’s security concern about NATO’s eastern expansion,” “impact on the global food supply,” and “other.” No mention of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Ukrainians’ self-determination, human rights, or negotiating a lasting peace. The methodology is clearly constrained by a need to comply with national messaging on the Ukraine war. The report also feels framed to paint a picture of a relatively warm public that welcomes trade and globalization in this particular moment, as China seeks foreign investment and economically beneficial engagement.