HONG KONG -- A court in northwest China sentenced a former provincial safety official on Thursday to 14 years in prison for graft, a year after he became a symbol of a callous and corrupt bureaucracy when Chinese Internet users circulated photographs suggesting he had been living beyond his means.
The Xi'an Intermediate People's Court issued the sentence after convicting Yang Dacai, a former safety inspection official in Shaanxi Province, on charges of taking bribes and possessing assets of unclear origin, Chinese state-run news outlets reported Thursday morning. Phone calls to the court in Xi'an seeking confirmation of the sentence went unanswered Thursday.
Mr. Yang's case is one of many in China in recent years to demonstrate how local officials can be held accountable to public opinion, as ordinary citizens frequently turn to microblog posts and other online social networks to vent complaints against rampant corruption or other abuses of power.
However, such complaints against senior or national-level officials remain taboo and are actively scoured from the Internet by government censors and employees of the companies that operate online forums.
At the same time, the Chinese government has started a nationwide campaign in recent weeks against the spreading of so-called online rumors. Celebrity bloggers have been told to be careful what they say in online comments, dozens of microbloggers have been arrested and several Web sites and other Internet companies have been shut down.
At his trial last month, Mr. Yang had pleaded guilty to charges of taking bribes worth 250,000 renminbi, or $41,000, and possessing 5 million renminbi, or more than $800,000, in funds of doubtful origin.
Chinese news reports over the past year have commonly referred to Mr. Yang as Brother Watch for his habit of wearing expensive wristwatches, which was first publicly exposed by Chinese Internet users in widely circulated microblog postings and eventually led to his downfall.
After a multivehicle pileup killed 36 people on a highway in Shaanxi on Aug. 26 of last year, news photos showed Mr. Yang at the scene of the accident with a smile clearly visible on his face.
Offended by what they saw as an inappropriate expression, some Chinese Internet users began a collective online campaign to dig up dirt on Mr. Yang, in what is referred to in China as a "human-flesh search engine."
Internet users scrutinized photos of Mr. Yang attending public functions and soon discovered one showing him wearing an expensive watch. Other photos of Mr. Yang wearing different expensive watches quickly emerged and were widely circulated on the Internet.
The state-run news media then began to cover the story of Brother Watch. For example, a screenshot from a China Central Television news program that was circulated online shows Mr. Yang wearing flashy watches on 11 different occasions.
Provincial party officials in Shaanxi started an investigation. In February of this year, Mr. Yang was stripped of his posts for "serious disciplinary violations," and his case was referred to prosecutors.
Footage broadcast Thursday morning on China Central Television showed a judge in the Xi'an court reading out the verdict. Mr. Yang stood facing the judge, wearing an orange defendant's uniform and looking notably thinner than he had appeared in photos a year earlier. A faint smile was clearly visible on his face.
"History's most unfortunate smile and costliest smile belongs to 'Brother Watch' Yang Dacai," read one widely circulated posting on Thursday to Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging platform. "Given the sentence of 14 years, I reckon in the future officials will definitely popularize sullen faces."
Chen Jiehao contributed research from Beijing.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.