BEIJING/SHANGHAI China has suspended an army officer after reports he assaulted a flight attendant spread like wildfire on the Internet, fuelling growing outrage against the misbehavior of some government and Communist Party officials.
China's leaders want to project a good image ahead of a once-a-decade leadership transition later this year, but the Party is being hurt by reports of officials abusing their position. A series of corruption scandals, a reported orgy as well as incidents involving the offspring of senior leaders have not helped.
On Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency said Fang Daguo, a military official from the southern city of Guangzhou, had been suspended after he and his wife, both smelling of alcohol, had an altercation with flight attendant Zhou Yumeng over the couple's carry-on luggage.
Xinhua initially said a preliminary investigation found Fang had apologized but not assaulted Zhou.
The flight attendant published photos of her bruised arms and torn uniform on the Twitter-like microblog Sina Weibo, sparking a storm of angry comments.
"Fang Daguo, you have shamed China in front of the world," wrote one blogger.
After the photos published by Zhou spread online, the local government was investigating further and had suspended the official, Xinhua said.
The Global Times, a popular tabloid owned by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, said reports of such incidents were spreading like wildfire online as conflict between citizens and local officials was increasing.
"It's hard to improve officials' public image if they fail to stand up to public scrutiny and remain passive in communication with the people," the paper said on Sunday.
The party has always been image conscious, air brushing photos and strictly controlling the media to send the right message.
However, the rise of the Internet and microblogs like Sina Weibo have posed a major challenge to the party's control.
"A lot of times in the past, power might have gone unchecked and such things might have happened quite a lot without us knowing, but now people post things all the time... so a lot of things get revealed very quickly," said Chen Minglu, a lecturer at the University of Sydney's China Studies Centre.
"Civil society is slowly being formed in China... I think the people are learning more and more to be critical, they are learning how to criticize the power (holders) and they are more and more keen to do so."
David Zweig, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the Communist Party has always been more sensitive to public opinion around times of leadership change.
"The key question is whether this is a revolution where websites and microblogs will change China forever or whether it is something that only works around the time of the Party Congress," he said.
Unfortunately for the party, officials are giving plenty of ammunition to China's Internet users, who are quick to paint them as callous and out of touch with the people.
This year was already shaping up to be a rough one for the Communist Party's image, with the escape from illegal house arrest and flight into exile of blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and the downfall of Politburo member Bo Xilai, whose wife was found guilty of murdering a British businessman.
Last month, an official at the Shaanxi province's work safety department was caught on camera smiling broadly at the scene of a fiery bus crash that killed 36 people. China's net surfers have since turned up the heat on him over a collection of luxury watches noticed on his wrist in photos.
Luxury sports cars also have made ready targets, after a deadly Ferrari crash in March was said by some sources to have involved the son of a senior official and two young women.
Sensitive to perceptions that children of top party officials live privileged lifestyles, the details of the crash remain shrouded in mystery.
Last month, a county government in Anhui province had to deny that participants in photos of an orgy posted online were local officials.
Another incident that has received much attention online is the abuse and threats hurled at a traffic policeman by a man identified by Weibo users as a local party official in the northeastern province of Liaoning who was pulled over.
"F--k your mother! You dare check my car? If you aren't killed today I will have joined the Party for nothing," the official was quoted as saying in posts accompanied by pictures of a crowd supposedly witnessing the incident and a policeman with his shirt ripped.
The online reaction has been vehement.
"If (the official) doesn't die, the party just might," said Weibo user MingJun3488.
Chen Ziming, an independent scholar of politics in Beijing, said newspapers were frightened to publicize these incidents for fear of punishment, but Internet users aren't affected in the same way.
"Local governments haven't caught up. If they think they can suppress it, they are going to try. But Internet users increasingly won't tolerate this," he said.
(Additional reporting by Hui Li; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)