A Chinese official with a penchant for luxury watches who sparked outrage after he was pictured smiling at the scene of a fatal accident was tried for corruption Friday, a court said.
Yang Dacai was dubbed “Brother Watch” by Chinese Internet users after images of him wearing various luxury brand watches were tracked down and circulated online.
He came under scrutiny from furious netizens after he was pictured grinning broadly as he assessed the twisted wreckage of a bus and a methanol tanker following an accident which left 36 people dead last year.
Yang, the former head of the work safety body in the northern province of Shaanxi, is among a number of high profile officials brought down after being ridiculed in Internet chatrooms.
But authorities have recently launched a wide-ranging clampdown on “online rumours”, targeting scores of online companies, bloggers and journalists.
An official at the Intermediate People’s Court in Shaanxi’s provincial capital Xian told AFP the trial began and ended Friday.
It followed an investigation by the ruling Communist Party’s discipline inspection commission, which found Yang guilty of “inappropriate ‘smiling face’ behaviour” and dismissed him from his post.
In the criminal case, Yang was accused of having property worth 5.04 million yuan ($820,000) from unexplained sources and accepting 250,000 yuan in bribes, state broadcaster CCTV said on its verified Sina Weibo microblog.
He did not object to the charges and the court will give its verdict at a later date, it added.
The prosecution argued that Yang’s family assets were far more than his income as a public servant, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Many netizens commented on images of Yang at his trial, which showed him sitting between two policemen, hints of mild amusement playing on his lips.
“He is still smiling in court,” said one poster on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “It seems Brother Watch has a natural Mona Lisa smile.”
Yang’s highly publicised and widely discussed downfall was played out amid a drive by authorities to contain popular anger at public servants’ perceived expensive tastes and corruption.
Pictures posted online showed him wearing 11 flashy watches — five of which were together worth more than 300,000 yuan ($48,000), the China Daily newspaper quoted an expert as saying. Other images showed him in designer glasses and belts.
Last December, Yuan Zhanting, the mayor of Lanzhou, the capital of China’s relatively poor northwestern province of Gansu, was also ridiculed online after an Internet user posted pictures of him wearing a total of five luxury wristwatches, the state-run Global Times said. One of them, an Omega, was worth 150,000 yuan ($24,000).
Earlier this month, four judges in Shanghai were suspended over allegations they patronised prostitutes after an anonymous blogger posted footage online.
The leadership of the ruling party under President Xi Jinping has repeatedly pledged to crack down on corruption.
But authorities are now attempting to rein in Internet chatter with a campaign against online rumours. Hundreds of people are estimated to have been questioned or detained as a result.
Three weeks ago, officials told Internet celebrities with millions of online followers to “promote virtues” and “uphold law” online.
A journalist has been detained for “fabricating rumours” after he made online accusations of wrongdoing against a former senior official in Chongqing, the megacity once headed by fallen politician Bo Xilai.
Chinese-American billionaire blogger Charles Xue was also arrested this month for suspected involvement in prostitution and “group licentiousness”.
Xue attracted 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, regularly posting reform-minded comments on a variety of sensitive issues.
On Thursday authorities detained a “rumour-maker” in the eastern province of Anhui after he said 16 people died in a traffic accident when officials said only 10 were killed, domestic media reports said.
Reports Friday said 27 people had been arrested in the central city of Wuhan after police “busted” an “online rumour speculation company”. AFP