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April 29, 2017

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China's Communist Party battles image issues

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 misbehaviour 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."

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