Orgy Photos Making Awkward Waves on Web

A series of more than a hundred leaked online photos featuring five people engaged in group sex has put the Communist Party on the defensive, writes The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, who puts the awkward situation in perspective:

It’s tough to spin an orgy. The local Party office in question first claimed that the images had been photoshopped; then they dropped that angle and said they were, instead, simply old pictures from elsewhere in China, unrelated to the county. But that explanation ran aground when one of the men—identified in state press reporters as Wang Yu, a deputy secretary of the Youth League Committee of Hefei University in Anhui province—while insisting that “the two other men are his friends, not government officials, conceded that “he regretted his behavior.” (The photos, it seems, were plucked from the computer of one of the participants after the machine was brought in for repair.) Another Party organ was not as contrite. “NAKED GUY IS NOT OUR PARTY CHIEF: LOCAL AUTHORITY” was the headline in the Global Times after the Communist Party committee in Lujiang county declared a case of mistaken identity in response to the suggestion that a bespectacled participant bears an extraordinary resemblance to Wang Minsheng, the local Party secretary. Wang said he had been “slandered” most likely because he was investigating others for corruption, and his office vowed that revenge: “Those behind the smear campaign will be held legally responsible.”

At bottom, the sex party is vexing for the Party because it highlights the gap between the artifice of official solemnity and the unadorned reality beneath, a gap that has become more pronounced in recent years as the Web eats away at the monopoly on authority. The downfall of Bo Xilai is of interest to the Chinese public not simply because it involves murder, corruption, and betrayal but because it is unfolding noisily just offstage from where the Party is desperately seeking to convey the sense that everyone is proceeding according to plan. As the Global Times commented of the group shots, people “feel that this is but scratching the surface of the lives of luxury and sin that many officials secretly enjoy. Such activities are being pointed to as evidence for the decaying morality of government officials.”

Offbeat China has posted a couple of the photos in question, and details the reaction among journalists and netizens:

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of pro-government newspaper Global Times, also stood in defense of Lujiang government, and he certainly has a point: “I didn’t go over all the photos from the Lujiang group sex set. However, anyone with the slightest understanding of politics in China won’t believe that these are photos of county Deputy Chief and Secretary of county Party committee. The Internet is a platform for bottom-up supervision. Let’s protect it together and shield it from rumors.”

Later, journalists from Nanfang Daily also dug out an apology by netizen anhui1234567q on Lujiang Baidu Tieba (a large online community hosted by Baidu) explaining how the whole group sex rumor started: “I saw a set of unverified photos on Sina Weibo and thought one of the guys looked like Deputy Chief of Lujiang. I suggested that they photos were of Lujiang county Deputy Chief in accident. I never imaged it would lead to such severe consequences. I feel very sorry. Hereby I sincerely apologize to Deputy Chief Mr. Wang. I’m kneeing down asking for his forgiveness. It wasn’t on purpose. Announcement by anhui1234567q. 8/92012.”

But what netizens choose to believe is another story. At least, the official website of Lujiang government was reported to be hacked hours after the photos went viral online. While most netizens are either actively looking for download links for the photos or are condemning the decayed morality of government officials, some others came up with another hypothesis, that is, to use a group sex rumor to distract people’s attention away from the trial of Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who confessed to murder of a Briton on court yesterday.