BEIJING -- The young women met the officials for illicit trysts with video cameras hidden in their purses. Every detail of the encounters was recorded. Then a group of men confronted the officials with the video recordings and made demands.
China's state news media reported on Friday details of a sex extortion ring that brazenly operated "honey traps" in the southwest metropolis of Chongqing for several years. The widening scandal, which first emerged late last year, has led to the dismissals of at least 11 officials of the Communist Party, government or state-owned companies for having sex with women in the ring and then being blackmailed by the men who had set up the snares.
Xi Jinping, China's new top leader, has vowed to root out official corruption and said this week that "flies," or relatively low-level bureaucrats, as well as top officials he referred to as "tigers," must be brought down.
The most famous victim of the sex ring scandal is Lei Zhengfu, a middle-aged district party chief who was secretly filmed having sex in a hotel room in 2008 with a young woman. In late November, the leaked video of Mr. Lei began circulating on the Internet and he became the poster boy for a series of low-level or midlevel officials who have been brought down by scandals, often sexual in nature, across the nation. Mr. Lei was removed from his job and placed under investigation soon after the video appeared online. Now, according to Xinhua, the state news agency, 10 other officials have been removed as well for falling prey to the sex ring. Five of them were executives in state-owned companies.
The sex scandal might have come out earlier, but Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party chief at the time, and Wang Lijun, his police chief, buried the results of an investigation into the ring. Mr. Bo and Mr. Wang were both felled last year by the fallout from the murder of a British business executive that was arranged by Mr. Bo's wife; Mr. Bo is expected to be tried soon on a wide range of criminal charges. While the two scandals are unrelated, the airing of the blackmail ring at this time could reflect a decision by the Chinese leadership to highlight other problems in Chongqing under Mr. Bo's rule.
The ring's mastermind was a man named Xiao Ye, according to a report by Southern Metropolis Daily on Wednesday that was cited by Xinhua in its Friday article. Three women were used as bait. The state media reports did not say exactly what the officials gave the men in return for keeping their involvement secret, but one report said that a company run by Mr. Xiao was involved in a real estate development project in the district that was governed by Mr. Lei.
Mr. Xiao gave the women a list of Chongqing officials whom the women were to contact, Xinhua reported. The women sent text messages to the officials. They would tell the officials that they worked for a local real estate company and had met the official at a banquet.
"Hope we can stay in touch a lot," they wrote. If the officials said they had no memory of the meeting, the women would invoke the name of a chief executive and pretend to be angry that the official had forgotten the woman already. If the official bit, the woman would continue flirting by text or transmit seductive photos of herself, Xinhua said.
A woman would then meet with the official in an upscale hotel to have tea, coffee or a snack. The official would hand her gifts, like jewelry. Eventually, when the two were ready to have sex, the woman would make sure to show up at the hotel room with a hidden camera. The official would rarely stay the entire night, but the video caught all the action.
This happened over and over until the video was clear enough, Xinhua reported. Then, at a later tryst, several men in the ring would show up while the official and the woman were in the middle of having sex. One of the men would pretend to be the woman's boyfriend and throw a fit. Behind him would be another man pretending to be a private detective. A third man would then show up and say he was a member of a gang.
They would beat up the official and show him the video. Mr. Xiao entered the scene afterward to work out an agreement with the official and assure him that the video would remain buried, as long as the demands were met.
Of the victims, Mr. Lei was the one who tried to fight back most vigorously, one report said. He assumed that the video would eventually come out, and so he went to senior Chongqing officials to explain his plight. Wang Lijun, who was then the police chief of Chongqing, took charge of the case. By 2009, the investigation was done and Mr. Wang and Mr. Bo had the results. But they decided to quash the case or ignored it, and the officials who were found to have been victims of the ring were eventually promoted.
The Xinhua article on Friday said people have been especially surprised that one district party chief in particular, Peng Zhiyong, who holds a doctorate, fell victim to the honey trap.
"He was spoken highly of by the people and enjoyed a reputation for being talented, smart, eloquent and outstanding in all ways," Xinhua said. In addition, the report said, he "was widely regarded as having enormous political potential."
Amy Qin contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.