LU JIANFU BATTLES CORRUPTION

Lu Jianfu films government vehicles violating traffic rules. It’s how he fights rampant corruption, one sedan at a time.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis

in Zhenghzou, China

It's dark outside. Four men look into the camera, their faces consumed with rage. One of them wears a golden necklace and a tight fitting white shirt. You can count his abs, which is clearly his intention. The man raises his arm and strikes without hesitation. The camera shakes. The image blurs a bit. The other three men join in. The camera falls to the ground.

“That's when I ran,” says Lu Jianfu (46), who was at the other end of the lens.

He stares at his laptop, watching the footage he recorded. “Some people in power, even at the lowest levels, think too highly of themselves,” he says. “Whenever they see me filming, they'll first offer to take care of any problem I might have. All I would have to do in return is stop recording. I always refuse, so then the money bag comes out. How much for me to stop what I'm doing, they'll ask. When they figure out that doesn't work either, they turn to threats and actual violence.”

Lu Jianfu at work with his camera, filming government cars in Zhengzhou, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Lu knows the man in the white shirt with the abs. He is a government official, responsible for construction projects in Lu’s hometown Zhengzhou, a city of ten million people and the capital of Henan province in eastern China. The man’s job allows him to drive around in a black Audi with special government plates.

Lu: “That night I saw him parked illegally somewhere, so I started filming. That's when he and the three others came up to me. All four have now been fired, because I recorded them beating me.”

During the day Lu works as a cameraman for the regional tv station of Henan province. In his spare time, he likes to film government cars violating traffic rules. Or maybe he doesn’t like it as much as he sees it as his civic duty.

“Some drivers will jump out of their cars immediately and start hitting me. Come to think of it, the violence is pretty common. But I have yet to be defeated.”

 

Rampant corruption often ranks first place on a list of things Chinese dislike about their government. The misuse of luxurious government cars in plain sight is one of its most visible outpours.

People everywhere in this country, from those in the neighborhoods surrounding Beijing’s Forbidden City to farmers in remote areas of Sichuan province: everyone is familiar with the black sedans carrying the special plates, continuously honking that very particular low, loud horn they all seem to have.

The cars can be seen on their way to government compounds during the day, but just as well in fancy restaurant districts or areas of shadier entertainment at night.


Lu gets itchy. He stares at the number plate of a highway patrol vehicle parked in front of the main train station in Zhengzhou: AA3396. Something's off, his instinct tells him.

“That double AA is usually only for cars used by the highest officials. It's weird this car has that marker as well.”

He notes how only cars with a permit issued by the local government can park in front of the train station. “There's no reason for the highway patrol to have such a permit.”

He gets his camera and zooms in on the license plate. Up close, it becomes clear that the second A has been taped over the actual second letter of the plate, an N.

The driver of the highway patrol car gets out and gives Lu a light pat on the shoulder. He’s not wearing a uniform. “Come on, you know how things go, right?” he says with an overtly friendly voice. “Let's not make a big deal out of this. I apologize, I know I'm in the wrong. Why don't you give me your phone number? I'm responsible for car dealerships in this region. I'm sure I can do you a favor sometime.”

Lu declines politely and keeps filming. “Hey, man,” the driver pushes on. “How about you just stop that, alright? You want money? How much? I'll give you whatever you want. We don't need to discuss this any further.”

Lu Jianfu filming an illegally parked highway patrol vehicle in Zhengzhou, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Lu declines again. By now his filming has gotten the attention of a small crowd on the station square. An officer of the municipal Zhengzhou police has also noticed something going on. Observed by a few dozen people, and Lu's camera, the officer has little choice other than to pull out his ticket book and to write up a fine for his colleague from the highway patrol.

It's weird sight, seeing one police officer writing up another. Especially in China, a country where the government is one large, closed unit where higher-ups hardly ever publicly sanction those lower down.

“The government is like a big family,” says Lu. “A father will never punish his son too hard. Like that, the top of the Communist Party in Beijing will never really be motivated to clean up the mess in the lower ranks. The corruption, the arrogance of the authorities: it is everywhere, all the time.”

Lu spends pretty much all of his free time looking for government cars in violation of traffic rules. To him it’s simply the easiest, most direct way to fight at least some of the shortcomings of this vast system, no matter how minor. He will film them running red lights, parking wherever and being used for private instead of public affairs.

The central government in Beijing acknowledges the misuse of cars. According to official numbers, there are five million government vehicles in the country, costing tax payers forty billion euros.

The central government acknowledges the misuse of official vehicles, but the problem might be ‘too big to resolve’. (C) Remko Tanis

Government owned tabloid newspaper Global Times wrote: ‘The abuse of government cars is so rampant, that most authorities simply ignore the problem. It's become too big to resolve.’

That doesn't discourage Lu though. His blog, to where he posts his recordings, has been visited by millions.

“Sometimes it really gets to me,” he says. “My wife calls me a stubborn ass. I hardly ever see her. You can imagine things aren't going too wel at home. My friends think I'm a psycho.”

He's well known in Zhengzhou, both among the public and with the authorities. That fame shields him, for now, against the trouble other Chinese people find themselves in after criticizing the government.

The authorities even gave him a special badge and an official title: ‘Civic Guardian of Civilization’. “The badge allows me to film all the wrongs I see. I have a direct line to the under-secretary general of the Communist Party in Zhengzhou, so I can send him the recordings.”

To some this means Lu has sold out. “Nonsens,” he says predictably. “When I was given the badge, I told them straight to their faces that they cannot expect me to say nice things about them. Ever. I mean, how can you say good things about such a troubled system?”

Suddenly he speeds off, mounts his camera on his shoulder and points the lens at a police car.

“Hey!” he shouts at the driver. “Hey, you! You can't park here! Why are you parking here? What makes you think you can do that?"

The driver, again not a uniformed police officer, angrily tries to raise the window. Lu stops it with his hand and presses on. “Explain yourself!”

The pissed off driver takes a swing at the lens and drives off. Lu is able to zoom in and record the number plate.

Lu confronting the driver of a police vehicle violating traffic rules in Zhengzhou, China. (C) Remko Tanis

“It's not the individual officers who are causing this problem,” he says. “It's the general attitude of the system they work in. It’s mainly focused on channeling privileges toward members of the system. No one is doing checks and correcting things.”

Not too long ago he spotted a parking ticket under the windshield wiper of a government vehicle. “I took it and wrote on the back of the ticket ‘Whoever tries to erase this record from the system, I hope you'll drop dead!’ Sometimes it feels like cursing and yelling is all I can do. I'm not naive. I know that ticket will magically disappear anyways.”

How is Lu so sure of that? “A cop showed me what happens when he tries to record a ticket into the computer system. If the plates of the car involved start with the special ‘O’ or ‘AAA’, the system won't allow the ticket to process. It'll just return a ‘license plate unknown’ message.”

As he is telling this, he keeps looking out of the window of our lunch place, Mr. Li’s Noodle Restaurant. Suddenly he gets up and runs outside towards yet another black Audi with tinted windows. The driver sees Lu coming and speeds away. As a taunting gesture he gives a quick wave to Lu’s camera lens.

“The violations with service cars form just one of the many ways in which the government violates the rights of Chinese people,” says Lu. “It's extremely exhausting to fight this system, especially since it’s so difficult to engage more people in the fight for progress in China. I mean, you don’t get paid for this battle, so that puts many people off right away.”

Lu might not win the war, but after 2.5 years of filming he at least won an important battle. He got the local government to rescind all traffic privileges for cars with AAA and O plates.

Lu: “That also brought to light there were four hundred cars driving around with AAA plates, even though only the twenty highest ranking members of the city government are entitled to them. The remaining 380 AAA-plates had been given away as sweeteners.”

He keeps a copy of the newspaper announcing the new measures as a trophy. He takes it out of his bag and looks at it. His face turns sour. He lets out a deep sigh.

Lu spends much of his free time documenting government cars violating traffic rules. ‘My wife calls me a stubborn ass, my friends think I’m a psycho.’ (C) Remko Tanis

“Actually, this makes me want to cry. I read a lot of online news from Taiwan and Hong Kong. I know very well what is going on outside of China and that it's not normal to have such a corrupt government. On Chinese websites you'll see a lot of people shout and whine about corruption, but that's it. Hardly anyone bothers with writing a well thought out, grounded indictment against corrupt officials.”

“We have been taken hostage by cynicism. We are very quick in thinking that the privileged Communists are too powerful and will never give up even a millimeter. But here in Henan province it's been proven that if you fight long enough, results can be gotten. The abolishment of the special plates was real progress.”

Again, a sigh. “I have to be realistic. We'll never have a true system of checks and balances to hold those in power to account. They always find a way to skirt the rules. Come to think of it, you can’t blame people for not wanting to fight for progress. The price for it is simply too high in China.”