BEIJING -- The Chinese have become largely inured to tales of voracious officials stockpiling luxury apartments, $30,000 Swiss watches or enough stolen cash to buy their mistress a Porsche.
But when images of a bulbous-faced Communist Party functionary in southwest China having sex with an 18-year-old girl spread on the Internet late last month, even the most jaded citizens took note -- as did the local party watchdogs who ordered his dismissal.
These have been especially nerve-racking times for Chinese officials who cheat, steal and bribe. Since the local bureaucrat, Lei Zhengfu, became an unwilling celebrity here, a succession of others have been publicly exposed. And despite the usual cries of innocence, most have been removed from office while party investigators sort through their bedrooms and bank accounts.
In the weeks since the Communist Party elevated a new slate of top leaders, the state media, often fed by freelance vigilantes, have been serving up a head-spinning collection of scandals.
Highlights include a deputy district official in Shanxi Province who fathered 10 children with four wives; a prefecture chief from Yunnan with an opium habit who managed to accumulate 23 homes, including 6 in Australia; and a Hunan bureaucrat with $19 million in unexplained assets who once gave his young daughter $32,000 in cash for her birthday.
"The anticorruption storm has begun," People's Daily, the party mouthpiece, wrote on its Web site this month.
The flurry of revelations suggests that members of China's new leadership may be more serious than their predecessors about trying to tame the cronyism, bribery and debauchery that afflict state-run companies and local governments, right down to the outwardly dowdy neighborhood committees that oversee sanitation. Efforts began just days after Xi Jinping, the newly appointed Communist Party chief and China's incoming president, warned that failing to curb corruption could put the party's grip on power at risk.
"Something has shifted," said Zhu Ruifeng, a Beijing journalist who has exposed more than a hundred cases of alleged corruption on his Web site, including the lurid exertions of Mr. Lei. "In the past, it might take 10 days for an official involved in a sex scandal to lose his job. This time he was gone in 66 hours."
The licentiousness of Qi Fang, the public security chief of a small city in the far west, probably deserves a prize for originality. This month, an Internet sleuth revealed that Mr. Qi was maintaining two young sisters as mistresses. The sisters, as luck would have it, had also landed police department jobs and shared an apartment bankrolled by the city.
Mr. Qi lost his post, but not before denying any mischief and correcting one detail of the story: the sisters, contrary to earlier reports, are not twins.
Still, for all the salaciousness associated with the latest scandals, analysts say it is too soon to know whether Mr. Xi and other senior leaders have the stomach to wage a no-holds-barred war on the party's pervasive corruption.
They point out that most of the recent scandals were uncovered by journalists, anonymous citizens or disgruntled colleagues who posted photographs and other damning allegations on the Internet, forcing the authorities to respond. Also significant is that most of those ousted were relatively minor officials.
The manager of a major Chinese Internet company said the party was effectively abetting the anticorruption free-for-all by declining to pull the plug on the online denunciations. But he said there was an implicit understanding that high-ranking officials were off limits.
"For now it's spontaneous," said the manager, who asked that the name of his company be withheld because of the political sensitivities involved. "But we also understand the parameters."
This month, Luo Changping, deputy managing editor at the enterprising newsmagazine Caijing, published accusations on his microblog about improper business dealings by Liu Tienan, the director of China's National Energy Administration. The postings, which also included charges that Mr. Liu had fabricated his academic qualifications and had threatened to kill his mistress, have caused something of an earthquake, given that they targeted such a high-level official. Just as astonishing, many say, is that Mr. Luo's claims remain undeleted by censors despite Mr. Liu's denials of wrongdoing.
Mr. Zhu, the online journalist who exposes official impropriety, has also been surprised to find his Web site untouched a month after he ran five-year-old images of Mr. Lei engaged in lusty acrobatics with the 18-year-old in a hotel room. In the past, Mr. Zhu said, his site was often blocked after each revelation, usually followed by a menacing visit from security officials.
"This time, I received a call from the Beijing police saying that they had received instructions to protect me," he said in amazement.
With four more damning videos in his possession, Mr. Zhu has promised encores -- once he can verify the identities of the main actors.
In the absence of any new policies from the central government, many Chinese have been left to parse the words of Mr. Xi and Wang Qishan, the new head of the central agency that investigates misconduct among party members.
"In recent years," Mr. Xi said during his inaugural speech on Nov. 15, "some countries have stored up problems for a long time leading to public anger and outcry, civil unrest and regime collapse. Corruption has been a very important factor in this."
Even more telling are reports that Mr. Wang has been urging officials to read Alexis de Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and the Revolution," a 19th-century analysis of the unbridled excess among French aristocrats that ended with the guillotine. Gao Yi, a history professor at Peking University, said Mr. Wang's message was clear: "The biggest failing of the old regime was the corruption of the rulers," he told the 21st Century Business Herald.
The warnings appear to be having some impact within the party hierarchy. Real estate brokers in at least two provinces say they have been inundated by anxious government officials desperate to unload property they fear could attract unwanted scrutiny, The Oriental Morning Post reported Monday.
Wang Baolin, a former lowly official in the southern city of Guangzhou, provided a glimpse of the pervasive culture of corruption during his recent trial on charges that the $3.3 million in his bank account was of dubious provenance. Seeking to explain his behavior, Mr. Wang said he had no choice but to take bribes. "If I didn't take them, I'd offend too many people," he said.
Mr. Xi is not the first Chinese leader to rail against official vice and venality. Hu Jintao, China's departing president, called graft a "time bomb buried under society." Former Premier Zhu Rongji vowed to give his life in the fight against official malfeasance. "I'll have 100 coffins prepared," he said after taking office in 1998. "Ninety-nine are for corrupt officials, and the last one is for myself."
Mr. Zhu is still around; his son, Zhu Yunlai, became head of one of China's biggest investment banks shortly after his father left office.
Critics say members of the party elite fear that any far-reaching crackdown might hit too close to home, given how many of their relatives have profited from the proximity to power. Immediate family members of Wen Jiabao, China's departing prime minister, have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion, The New York Times revealed in October, even as he projected an image of frugality.
Many of Mr. Xi's relatives, especially his older sister, have also done well in recent years, with hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate holdings and at least a half-dozen high-end properties in Hong Kong, an investigation by Bloomberg News found in June.
There is no indication either Mr. Xi or Mr. Wen benefited from the business dealings of his relatives. But the perception that family members of ranking officials have grown rich from their connections has long angered many Chinese.
A businessman who knows several senior leaders said they had been taken aback by the rash of Internet-based denunciations. "There will be less waste and graft for a while," he said. "But that was true when Hu Jintao came in, and then look how things turned out by the time he left."
Already, the state media have begun to urge caution, and one newspaper editor in Beijing said propaganda officials had been seeking to impose some restrictions on exposés. And experts note that Chinese leaders have so far refused to even consider the key ingredients needed to root out corruption: governmental transparency, a system of checks and balances, a free press and an independent judiciary.
"Without effective institutions," said Li Xinde, who runs a Web site that exposes corrupt officials, "anticorruption campaigns can just become a tool for settling scores."
Patrick Zuo contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.