With his five cellphones constantly ringing, it is not easy these days to get the undivided attention of Zhu Ruifeng, a professed citizen journalist whose freelance campaign against graft has earned him pop-star acclaim and sent a chill through Chinese officialdom.
"Shush, I've got the BBC on the phone," he said one afternoon last week, silencing the crowd of acolytes and journalists who had flocked to the bookstore where he holds court most days.
A former migrant worker with a high school education, Zhu has become an overnight celebrity in China in the two months since he posted online secretly recorded video of an 18-year-old woman having sex with a memorably unattractive 57-year-old official from the southwestern municipality of Chongqing. The official lost his job. Zhu gained 1 million or so new microblog followers.
The takedown was just the opening act, Zhu says. He promises to release six more sex videos that he predicts will make a number of other men run for cover.
"I'm fighting a war," he said with characteristic bombast, his voice a near-shriek. "Even if they beat me to death, I won't give up my sources or the videos."
Not surprisingly, Zhu, 43, has made a few enemies within the government. Late last month, five men showed up at his apartment with state security ID cards. As they thundered from the other side of his locked front door, Zhu dialed foreign journalists, texted his lawyers and sent out an electronic SOS to the multitudes. The agents left only after he promised to appear for questioning the following morning.
The next day, he emerged from the stationhouse like a triumphant prizefighter, telling waiting supporters how he had verbally outflanked interrogators during seven hours of questioning.
"I dared them to throw me in jail and then watch how many human rights and journalism awards I win," he crowed. "In the end, they turned white with fear."
It is impossible, of course, to verify Zhu's claim. But his cocky behavior and bristling indignation have come to personify the popular fury over official malfeasance that has flourished alongside China's torrid economic growth. He has also become a litmus test of how committed China's new leaders are in their battle against corruption - and whether they can tolerate a populist crusader like Zhu.
Because he has no state-issued journalist's credentials, Zhu occupies a tenuous gray zone, which partly explains his penchant for surrounding himself with reporters and supporters - people he hopes might decrease the likelihood of his disappearing into the black hole of the state's security apparatus.
"Here on Chinese soil, it's almost impossible for citizen journalists like him to survive long term," said Zhan Jiang, a media scholar at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
On the face of it, Zhu's goals dovetail nicely with those of Xi Jinping, the new Communist Party leader who is to become president next month. Since his installation in November, Xi has been regularly assailing systemic graft, warning that officials large and small - both "tigers" and "flies," as he put it - should be brought to justice.
So far the actual results have been minimal. But whether intentional or not, Xi's jeremiads have inspired freelance scandal-chasers like Zhu to seize the moment and pick off misbehaving officials with the help of the Internet. The takedowns often begin with a tip from a jilted mistress or back-stabbing associate and end with an online expose that forces the authorities to act, and the state-run media to take notice.
The daily smorgasbord of official greed and licentiousness has become so unwieldy that newspapers have begun providing readers with charts to keep track of the implicated and their loot. One particularly rapacious former bank official from Shaanxi province, Gong Aiai, has become known as "House Sister" for having parlayed bribes and kickbacks into a real estate portfolio of 41 apartments in Beijing. So far the most senior official to be exposed is Liu Tienan, the nation's top energy regulator, who is under investigation for accusations of lying about his academic credentials, colluding with a businessman to pocket fraudulently acquired bank loans and threatening to kill a former mistress.
Zhu, who began his website in 2006, largely relies on whistle-blowers to funnel damning evidence to him. Through the years, he said, he has exposed 100 officials, bringing down more than a third of them. He has been threatened and beaten; more than once, he says, he has been offered huge sums of money to delete an incriminating post from his site, which is called People's Supervision.
The compromising images of Lei Zhengfu, the Chongqing official caught having sex with the 18-year-old, have been an anti-graft jackpot for Zhu: Eleven officials have resigned or been fired for their role in what was a honey trap organized by business executives seeking to blackmail powerful bureaucrats to win government contracts. The scheme ultimately failed, but the tapes ended up in the hands of the Chongqing police. After investigators failed to act, Zhu says, a disgruntled person inside the department sent the evidence his way.
In a society plagued by official deceit, lies and cronyism, Zhu says ordinary citizens have come to rely on the Internet for retribution, even if it often amounts to mob justice.
"We used to say that when you have a problem, go to the police," he said. "Now we say when you have a problem, go to the netizens."
Zhu's newfound fame has drawn out a number of detractors, including some Chinese journalists who criticize his lust for self-promotion and question the source of his financing.
The suggestion that Zhu is up to no good grew so loud last week - "media slander," he called it - that he telephoned a reporter to provide a more detailed breakdown of his finances.
He said much of his income comes from providing research to foreign media outlets or through donations from wealthy supporters. "For them, 10,000 yuan," or about $1,600, "is like a penny," he said.
Zhu says his passion for bringing powerful men to their knees can be traced to the decade he spent toiling as a cement mixer and working as a shoe salesman in Henan province, where he grew up. In 2001, after investing his savings in a small hotel in the city of Xinxiang, he lost nearly everything when the local government expropriated and bulldozed the property. His lawsuit seeking compensation went nowhere.
"That's when I found out the courts also lie," he said.
The disillusionment was compounded, he said, after he took a reporting job at a state-run legal publication sponsored by the Supreme People's Court; there, he discovered that in China, journalism is largely the handmaiden of the Communist Party.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service