BEIJING (AP) — It all began with a smile at the wrong place and the wrong time.
A Chinese work safety official who pleaded guilty Friday to corruption charges began drawing public scrutiny last summer when a news photo showed him smiling at the site of a deadly highway accident in central China. That triggered public ire not only about his facial expression but about the luxury wristwatch he was wearing.
The official, Yang Dacai, said he was trying only to cheer up the rescue crew. But netizens already were scouring the Internet, and found other photos showing he had a collection of luxury timepieces. They nicknamed him "Brother Watch" and demanded explanations of how he could afford such luxury on a government salary.
Communist Party officials later opened an internal investigation into Yang, the former director of the work safety bureau in Shaanxi province. He was fired from his government position in September and expelled from the party in February for "severe violations of party discipline."
Yang appeared in the Xi'an intermediate court on Friday and pleaded guilty 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. Yang faces several years in prison at his sentencing, which will take place at a later date, state media said.
Yang had also served on the provincial party discipline inspection commission, which is the party's watchdog group against corruption.
His case helped set a trend among the Chinese public to mockingly label government officials who have numerous wristwatches or real estate properties with nicknames like "Uncle Watch" and "Sister House," as an expression of disgust over endemic corruption.
Chinese officials are wary of having whistleblowers and citizen sleuths looking into the corruption of public servants, preferring to do the policing on their own terms. But they have in some recent cases responded to public outcries — such as the one over "Brother Watch" — with their own corruption probes.
At the same time, they have cracked down on online speech critical of officials, including arresting a journalist who alleged dereliction of duty by a senior official, and detaining scores of social media users on charges of fabricating and spreading rumors.