Writing in the Global Times, Tom Fearon argues that Zhao Hongxia, the woman identified as the mistress of disgraced Chongqing sex tape official Lei Zhengfu “has [a] right to dignity, too”.
In his piece, Fearon name checks Shanghaiist (hi Tom!) and quotes one of the most strident criticisms made against us by our readership, that by publishing photos of her we were exploiting a “victim of institutionalized, socially accepted rape”.
There is an interesting and worthwhile conversation to be had about the status and agency of young mistresses in a country as intensely patriarchal as China. Undoubtedly there are many girls, forced by poverty and power-disparity into having sexual relationships with Chinese officials. Personally, I would shy away from calling this rape, but exploitation it most certainly is. That a politician who, in Fearon’s own words, bears an “uncanny resemblance to Mr Toad from The Wind and the Willows“, was sleeping with attractive young women speaks to the shameful dearth of opportunities available to those women apart from tying themselves to powerful men.
There are important points to make about sexism, patriarchy, and exploitation with regard to this story, but the Global Times doesn’t make them. Instead the paper uses faux concern over the outing of Zhao as a stick with which to beat investigative reporter Ji Xuguang.
Zhao is the latest in a long line of young maidens thrust, willingly or not, into the public spotlight from political sex scandals. However, it should be remembered that this sex tape was leaked to the public by journalist Ji Xuguang, who despite his noble grandstanding as an anti-corruption crusader, took it upon himself to leak the video to the world without Zhao’s consent.
Ji and his source of the video, fellow reporter Zhu Ruifeng, argue they have done society a service in exposing an allegedly corrupt official. The duo claims to have a further five sex tapes indicting other Chongqing officials, which they plan to leak once identities are confirmed.
But investigative journalism at its core should be about exposing wrongdoing, rather than orchestrating it and then selling it to the public. Corruption certainly qualifies as being in the public interest, but sex tape stings that expose little more than adultery are difficult to justify given the intense scrutiny and shame that women in such cameos face.
No where has it been suggested that the sex tapes were set up as “stings” by the journalists who broke the story. Both reporters allege that the tapes were in fact recorded by enemies of Lei Zhengfu and other officials with the intention to blackmail them, which, if true, makes the story far more interesting and newsworthy than a simple sex scandal (which, don’t get me wrong, is still newsworthy).
If, as Ji and Zhu allege, Zhao Hongxia was a paid participant in the attempted blackmail of Lei, it is her employer, not the journalists, who exploited her. That the Global Times is attacking Ji and Zhu on Zhao’s behalf speaks to the paper’s true purpose, of discrediting two reporters who have caused great embarrassment to the Chongqing government and the CPC as a whole.
Finally, as to why Shanghaiist published photos of Zhao: they were newsworthy, as is ably demonstrated by the fact that nearly every China blog, and several international newspapers published the photos shortly after we did. The Lei Zhengfu sex tape is a scandal that continues to grow, having already brought down one politician, the identity of the woman in the sex tape is therefore of interest, especially if, as has been alleged, she was part of a plot to blackmail the official.
To quote Gawker‘s Hamilton Nolan on whether that site was right to publish the Fox News car-chase suicide:
When we start picking and choosing whether or not we run clearly newsworthy things based on whether or not they make us queasy, we’re in slippery slope territory.
Update #1: The Global Times’ Tom Fearon has responded to this piece, read his rebuttal here.