a couple of years ago, the Times ran a piece by Edward Wong with a headline that stays with you: “18 ORGIES LATER, CHINESE SWINGER GETS PRISON BED.” It was the profile of a computer-science professor named Ma Yaohai who was in his early fifties, lived with his mother, and was best known by his Internet handle: Roaring Virile Fire. To his chagrin, Roaring Virile Fire had become a dissident of sorts when he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for joining clubs that promoted partner-swapping and group sex. He had been convicted of the little-known offense that the Chinese government calls “crowd licentiousness,” a relic of the days when the government charged people with “hooliganism” for sex outside of marriage and other flights of turpitude. The professor insisted that his efforts to organize and participate in eighteen orgies was nobody’s business but his own, as long as he was not causing a disturbance. “Privacy needs to be protected,” his lawyer, Yao Yong’an, told the Times.
Orgies are back in the news in Beijing, but this time it’s the Communist Party that has found itself in an uncomfortable position, and it is now praising the virtues of privacy. A leaked batch of photos swept across the Chinese internet this month, depicting a festive gathering of five, arrayed in various numerical combinations. Of more than a hundred photos, the ones that attracted the most attention were not the most acrobatic; they were the group portraits in which participants posed for the camera so clearly that it was not long before they were identified by Chinese Web users and discovered to include several government officials. Soon the group shots had been appended to portraits of the participants in their familiar poses—at official conferences, in tweeds, behind name plates—and the Internet swarmed. As the state-run Global Times put it, “it seems that Internet users do not want officials to be perceived as being akin to common mortals. They regularly show a great interest in burrowing away at government officials’ privacy.”
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.”
Until the hive moves on, government censors are seeing to tamp down the discussion. The State Council Information Office has sent out an advisory to Chinese news and discussion portals: “All websites must stop following and hyping the so-called ‘Lujiang Indecent Photos Incident.’ Interactive platforms must quickly remove all related photos.”