YONGCHENG, China — Atop the building that houses this citys Chinese Communist Party committee, a string of red characters proclaims the duties of leadership: be efficient, pragmatic, upright and, echoing Mao Zedong, work for the people.
Down one hallway, though, a row of committee offices sat closed and darkened on a recent morning. Li Xingong used to work here.
Police last month reportedly caught Li, a 42-year-old local party official, sexually assaulting an underage girl in a car. He was later arrested on charges of raping 11 girls since October 2011.
Even in a country accustomed to abuse of power, Li was a particularly shocking example of a man made strong by the Communist Party trampling the rights of average Chinese. The specter of wayward officeholders has increasingly become a challenge for the prestige of the party and, at the furthest limits, the underpinnings of its authority.
The officials at the lower levels are the most corrupt, said a man surnamed Deng, a 32-year-old who runs a photo studio in Yongcheng. As with others in the city, he spoke on the condition that his full name not be used, for fear of retribution. If all the officials in China were like this, then China would be finished.
In a year when the majority of seats on the standing committee of Chinas politburo are scheduled to change, and with them the nations top leaders in a once-in-a-decade transition, such sentiment has almost certainly caused unease in the capital. The Communists took over less than 65 years ago in part because of widespread dissatisfaction with the rapacious nature of the then ruling Nationalist Party. The view then was that Mao and his comrades offered a moral alternative.
That notion was challenged earlier this year by one of the largest scandals China has seen in decades. Politburo member Bo Xilai was removed from that position in April amid rumors of unchecked corruption and ruthlessness. Until then, hed been seen as a serious contender for the standing committee. Bos wife being named by the government as highly suspected in the murder of a British businessman only compounded a perception of rot inside the system.
The Communist Partys grip on power remains unchallenged. Its popularity is underwritten by decades of economic growth and the continuing betterment, from one generation to the next, of living standards in the worlds most populous country. But outrages like those that Li is charged with raise serious questions about the costs of conferring so much might and such little accountability on officials.
In Yongcheng, Li was the deputy director of the general office of the citys party committee. The assault of the underage girl allegedly took place May 8, though he wasnt formally arrested following detention and investigation until a few days after May 24, when one official news site says he was dismissed from his post. That apparently allowed authorities and the media they control to refer to him as a former official in announcements.
The confidence of the common people in officials has fallen, said a woman with the last name of Zhu, who was sitting in a small grocery behind Yongcheng No. 3 junior high school, near the spot where many said Li was discovered with his last victim.
His lifestyle probably wasnt this way before he got to that position, but afterward he became perverted, said Zhu, 40, absentmindedly watching a movie on a desktop computer. The common people certainly cannot do these sorts of things, we dont have that much power.
In Yongcheng, home to more than 1.2 million people spread across a central city district and a county of surrounding farm fields, some said they suspected Li had been taking advantage of young girls for a far longer time than police acknowledge.
He got money through corruption, spent it and turned into a deviant, said Xu, 48, a woman wearing a purple dress with floral prints.
Standing at a jewelry kiosk with a group of friends in a shopping arcade, Xu said that Li had everything he needed.
Xu slapped her palm and then rubbed her fingers together. A woman behind the counter, a 20-year-old named Li, explained the gesture: Money.
Xu then put her arm out and flexed a muscle. Power, said Li.
At a fast food restaurant down the road a knockoff McDonalds packed with customers at midday a 42-year-old bus driver surnamed Fu voiced similar feelings.
Not all officials are like him, but this will affect how we see officials in general, he said at first.
Then, thinking it over, Fu wondered aloud, Did higher officials not know?
He gave a troubled look. I think that he certainly was protected by some people, said Fu, as men at surrounding tables played cards and smoked cigarettes after lunch.
While Lis alleged crimes are extreme, hes not alone.
In the same central Chinese province of Henan where Yongcheng is located, the owner of a spa was sentenced in December to seven years in prison for sheltering prostitution after an uproar over schoolgirls being forced to participate in a sex-for-cash scheme. Officials confirmed the enterprise dragged in six girls. And there might have been far more.
Among the customers, according to allegations repeated by the state press, were unnamed officials and prominent citizens. Five low-level security and government functionaries were convicted for not properly performing inspection duties related to the club; the courts suspended their sentences.
Chinese media reported this month that the clients of a prostitution ring also said to have targeted schoolgirls many of them younger than 14 in eastern Zhejiang province included the head of a village committee. About three months earlier in the central province of Shaanxi, a court handed out prison terms to a pair of bureaucrats, a former village party secretary and the head of a highway construction team, for paying to have sex with a girl under the age of 14.
Several people interviewed in Yongcheng said they thought Li targeted dozens of girls, at the least. Some Chinese press reports have speculated that the number could stretch toward 100, a figure publicly denied by a Yongcheng police spokesman.
A state newswire report about Li Xingong quoted a professor and senior administrator at Tsinghua Universitys law school in Beijing as saying, In China, its quite easy for an official, with power and money, to assault a girl.
The striking remark from Li Hong appeared to be posted only on the Xinhua agencys English Website, out of reach for most Chinese.
Beyond officials sway over police and the reluctance of victims to come forward, a hitch in the law itself is on the side of aggressors.
Under Chinese criminal law, having sex with girls under 14 years old in flagrant circumstances brings at least 10 years in prison and the possibility of a life sentence or the death penalty. The law defines sleeping with girls that age as rape.
However, a separate article for crimes in which the girls are used as prostitutes puts the minimum sentence down at five years, with a fine, and names neither life in prison nor execution. The distinction has come up during recent years in instances of officials and businessmen paying intermediaries to deliver girls to them. Its not clear from police statements to what extent Li is accused of randomly carrying out rapes, vs. arranging for third parties to pay or coerce his prey.
A public outcry online about the second statute has yet to result in it being revised.
Spokesmen in the government and Communist Party information offices of Yongcheng although on paper theyre separate, the staffs are largely the same had little to say about Li Xingong.
At this stage, the temperature has come down, there was a lot of talk about this case at first, said Zhang Hui, director of both the information bureau for the city government and the partys international communications office in Yongcheng.
Zhang later added: Yongcheng citys attitude about this case is that it will make it an ironclad case and severely punish according to the law, and give the public a statement.
A reporter asked Zhang about the impact of the rapes on the reputation of area leaders. As with most other aspects of the case, he referred back to items posted on Yongchengs Website. None of which directly addressed the questions.
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