BEIJING — Two top Shanghai judges and another court official caught on a videotape apparently taking prostitutes to hotel rooms after dining with a contractor have been stripped of Communist Party membership and will likely lose their jobs.
The case, exposed by a disgruntled defendant in a civil case, has aggravated public distrust of the court system and shed new light on continued wrongdoing by officials despite the Chinese leadership's vow to crack down on all corruption.
"They slept with prostitutes, but they raped the law," commentator Liu Xuesong wrote in an editorial posted on the website of Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV and widely circulated online Wednesday in mainland China.
The hotel surveillance video, secretly copied and released publicly by a man who went to the hotel claiming he needed to see the videotapes to recover lost property, triggered an investigation by the Shanghai Communist Party Committee.
The panel said late Tuesday that the three Shanghai Supreme Court officials "participated in prostitution" after being invited to dinner. A fourth court official accepted female companionship that evening but did not take a woman to a room, the panel said.
The statement did not clarify whether the contractor paid for prostitutes, but party rules forbid both involvement in prostitution and accepting bribes. The committee said the three involved in prostitution were stripped of party membership while the fourth court official was on probation, and that it was requesting that the court dismiss all four employees.
The party-run People's Daily newspaper, commenting on the case Wednesday, said it was important for the image of judges to be untarnished.
"The images of judges are not about themselves but also inherently related to the credibility of the judicial system and the public trust of law," the editorial said.
Whistleblowers in China run the risk of retribution from powerful officials, and leaders are deeply wary of enlisting the public in the fight against corruption, preferring to wage the campaign on their own terms. However, the man who leaked the hotel videos — identified in state-run media reports only by his surname, Ni, has appeared to face no repercussions from his actions so far.
Ni has told state-run media outlets that he set out to expose wrongdoings by one of the judges, Shanghai Supreme Court Justice Zhao Minghua, after getting what he believed was unfair treatment in a court case handled by other judges.
Ni said he found out that Zhao was a cousin of the plaintiff in the case, a contract dispute in a building project, and he suspected the judge had exerted influence on the courtroom outcome. Ni told state media he then spent a year stalking Zhao, and found his opportunity on June 9 when he followed the judge to a resort hotel.
Ni said he later went to the hotel management claiming that he had lost something and asking to review surveillance videos, secretly filming copies and finding that they showed Zhao and colleagues taking women into their hotel rooms.
A prominent Chinese business magazine, Caixin, said the whistleblower had filed a police complaint in April, but "the case went nowhere" and he therefore decided to post the video online instead of going to the police again.
"It is clear that he realized the failed police report meant officials enjoy special protection," the magazine said. "An ordinary citizen making a report through official channels is likely to make little headway."
Shanghai-based lawyer Zhong Jinhua said there is no clear law on citizen vigilantes in China. "Personally I think he is entitled to take action to safeguard his lawful rights," Zhong said, noting Ni had exhausted official channels before he took the matter into his own hands. "It is understandable that he should have stalked the judge and taken video after his rights were violated."
Ni's act also raised questions over whether he violated the privacy of the officials. The central Chinese province of Henan recently approved a law forbidding online circulation of surveillance video without police approval. But the state-run China Youth newspaper said in a Wednesday editorial that a video documenting unsavory acts by government officials should not be banned from circulation if such acts may harm public interest.
"Government officials should have less privacy than ordinary citizens, because there is the need to ensure the public power operates normally and that public interest is protected," the editorial said.