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China’s ‘Brother Watch’ gets 14-year prison term

September 5, 2013

BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese provincial official whose grinning at the scene of a deadly bus crash sparked an outcry and, eventually, led to corruption charges was sentenced Thursday to 14 years in prison.

Yang Dacai was head of the Shanxi province work safety administration when photographs of him smiling at the crash scene circulated online in August 2012. Outraged citizens condemned his apparent callousness and, noting the luxury wristwatch he wore in the picture, dug up more photos of him wearing pricey timepieces.

They nicknamed him “Brother Watch” and demanded to know how he could afford the items on a public servant’s modest salary. Communist Party officials later opened an investigation and stripped him of his official duties for “serious wrongdoing.”

Yang pleaded guilty last month to charges of taking 250,000 yuan ($40,000) in bribes and having bank deposits of 5.04 million yuan ($820,000) from dubious sources. He was sentenced by the Intermediate People’s Court in the Shanxi capital of Xi’an, according to a court official speaking on routine condition of anonymity.

Prior to his trial, Yang had defended himself on an online forum, saying his smile was an attempt to cheer up anxious rescuers on the scene of the Aug. 26, 2012 accident, in which 36 people were killed. He also claimed to have used his legal income to purchase the watches.

Yang, who had also served on the provincial anti-corruption body, became yet another embodiment of the graft seen as rife among Chinese officialdom — and which is increasingly being exposed and condemned on China’s microblogging services.

New President Xi Jinping has tried to assuage public anger by encouraging frugality among officials and by tightening controls over the bureaucracy and long-cosseted state owned companies.

However, China’s ruling Communist Party is extremely wary of private citizens probing corruption, preferring to do the policing on its own terms. In recent months, scores of social media users have been detained after publicizing graft allegations or calling for officials to publicly declare their assets, amid a campaign by authorities to clamp down on ‘online rumors.’

Lu Liangbiao, a Beijing-based lawyer, said that under the current climate it would be more difficult to spark an investigation such as the one into Yang.

“If authorities had started their campaign to stamp out rumors online much earlier, then ‘Brother Watch’ would never have been sent to prison no matter how widely he smiled,” Lu posted on his verified account on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo.