BEIJING – Call me a lecher but don't call me a crook, an ex-city official at the heart of a sex tape scandal has said in his unusually spirited courtroom defense against corruption charges.
The case of Lei Zhengfu, former party chief of a district in the southern city of Chongqing, has riveted the Chinese public since video clips went viral of the portly 55-year-old having sex with a woman hired by property developers allegedly in an elaborate extortion scheme.
In a country where corruption trials of high-level officials typically look like the scripted outcome of backdoor bargaining, Lei's case has offered a rare look at what happens when a lower-level official is caught in a high-profile crackdown — with few political cards to play.
Lei is accused of accepting more than 3 million yuan ($500,000) in bribes from a developer to pay off a businessman who was allegedly using the tape to blackmail him. Lei rejects the charge of bribery, saying the money was a loan.
"Although I'm quite lecherous, I'm not greedy for money," he said in a Chongqing court Wednesday, reading out a personal statement.
Public anger and disgust over official corruption found an easy target in the images of his jowly, pop-eyed face in the throes of passion. Lei was soon fired from his post, and in ensuing weeks, more tapes were found, felling 11 other Chongqing officials.
The scandal has exposed in lurid detail the shady intertwining of sex, business and politics in Chinese society at a time when a newly installed generation of Communist Party leadership has vowed to crack down on widespread graft. It also tapped into public outrage over what is seen as the moral degradation of the country's leaders.
"The people's hatred of official corruption is not only because of their illegal behavior but because of resentment that they enjoy a special status that is higher than others and lets them enjoy more social resources," said Liu Shanying, a politics researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "They hope to see them punished by the law, which would help them vent that anger."
The court said it would issue a verdict at a later, unspecified date. On Thursday, those accused of running the extortion ring stood trial in a closed hearing.
Wednesday's proceedings involving Lei were in stark contrast to the corruption trial of China's former railways minister Liu Zhijun earlier this month, a much bigger case involving bribery amounting to 64 million yuan ($10.5 million) spanning more than two decades.
The railways minister's trial was a smoothly orchestrated affair of just a few hours, concluding before lunchtime. He pleaded guilty and showed remorse, thanking the Communist Party for the years it invested in him. Only the official Xinhua News Agency and state broadcaster CCTV were allowed inside the courtroom and media reports were uniformly similar and lacking in the salacious detail that has featured in Lei's case.
The trials of high-level officials accused of corruption are often seen as foregone conclusions hammered out by politicians and the party's graft investigators and announced by a court. There is usually little dispute aired during proceedings, and most of it is kept out of the public eye. In the railways minister's case, the two sides were so in tandem that even prosecutors were making a case for the court to show leniency for Liu.
As a district party chief, Lei is probably at the lowest rung of the party ladder in terms of officials who matter — and his case comes during a big political shakeup in the city of Chongqing after the downfall of its party chief in a major scandal. Lei appears to have been left to fend for himself and has sought to make the case that he was the victim of a heinous extortion gang that preyed on his weakness for women who were not his wife.
Here's how the scheme that allegedly ensnared Lei and the other officials is said to have worked: Attractive women were hired by Xiao Ye, a local businessman, to have sex with city officials and secretly videotape the trysts. Xiao then promised to make the tapes go away — for a price.
In Lei's case, a property developer agreed to provide the hush money of 3 million yuan in return for his patronage in business deals. Prosecutors say the transaction amounts to a bribe that Lei accepted, but defense attorney Ye Dongqiang said his client had always considered it a loan and had kept a record of it.
"We believe that from a truth-seeking, legal perspective, it does not amount to bribery," Ye said in an interview. "We can't just convict him because this case has a big social impact and because there are negative remarks in society. He has violated morals, but the law must have a bottom line."
Associated Press researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.
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