Chinese citizens who take the anti-corruption campaign of President Xi Jinping to heart by blowing the whistle on graft are likely to pay a high personal price, according to analysts.
President Xi Jinping has warned that the ruling Chinese Communist Party must beat graft or lose power, sparking a nationwide clampdown on corruption.
However, police continue to detain activists who call for greater transparency.
According to a recent estimate by the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group, at least 14 activists associated with a nascent anti-graft movement have been formally arrested or criminally detained since March, on charges ranging from subversion to public order offenses.
Sichuan-based activist Huang Qi, who founded the Tianwang rights website, said that low-ranking officials and members of the public who informed on corruption were often the targets of mafia-style revenge attacks.
"In the 15 years we have been running Tianwang, we have dealt with more than 100,000 cases of informers on corrupt officials at every level," Huang said in a recent interview. "Less than one percent of those cases were able to inform [on officials] successfully."
"The proportion who weren't the target of revenge attacks were less than one percent; more than 99 percent suffered revenge attacks," he added.
No independent supervision
Huang said China boasts a unique array of anti-corruption bodies and agencies, but that none of them is subjected to independent supervision.
"All of these anti-corruption bodies are internal [to the bodies they supervise,]" he said. "They supervise from within the Party."
"Under such circumstances, where there is only one source of power, it doesn't matter whether you have 1,000 whistle-blowers or 10,000; none of it is of any use."
He said the existence of a political opposition in China could boost the situation for whistle-blowers.
Xie Tian, professor of management at the University of South Carolina, agreed.
"Everyone is in the same boat [in China], because everyone gives a portion of their corrupt income to the officials directly above them," he said. "So it's very easy to work out who is the informant."
He added: "Sometimes, in China, we don't even know how whistle-blowers died."
Physical attacks, lost jobs
Chinese media reports have detailed a litany of whistle-blowers on high-ranking officials, all of whom suffered or died as a consequence of reporting in recent years.
In July 2007, Beijing executed the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), Zheng Xiayou, for dereliction of duty and taking bribes to approve a series of fake drugs that caused illness and death to many people.
The whistle-blower in that case, Gao Chun, struggled for 12 years to have Zheng's case properly investigated, losing his job and suffering physical attacks in the process, the China News Weekly reported recently.
In 2003, former Hebei Party Secretary Cheng Weigao was removed from office for graft. But his whistle-blower, Guo Guangchong, was reduced to a state of mental incapacity during a nine-month stay in a detention center in 1995.
And in 1999, the wife of Henan deputy township chief Lu Zhengyi was killed in a knife attack which also left him seriously injured, after he informed on Pingdingshan Party chief Li Changhe. Li was jailed for graft in 2001.
Timing of cases brought to light
In many cases, years or even decades elapse before the Party's disciplinary body will get involved in a case. But by then, it is often too late to protect the whistle-blower.
Huang said the timing of such cases has more to do with power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party than a serious attempt to attack graft.
Under Bo Xilai
Lawyer Li Zhuang was jailed in 2009 for speaking out against the use of torture to obtain confessions during anti-crime campaigns spearheaded by disgraced Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai.
Li, who recently published a book on his case, told his launch party that the government has yet to make public the details of that era, in spite of its criminal prosecution of Bo.
"The Chongqing municipal finance department has never made public how much revenue it earned from the 'strike black' campaigns," he said.
"Where have those billions gone? A Chongqing municipal finance official told me in private that they received 930 million yuan [about U.S. 150 million]," he said.
"But they took 30 billion [about U.S. $4.9 billion] from one mafia boss, and 90 billion [about U.S. $15 billion] from another, so where has all the money gone?"
"Everyone now knows that [my case] was a miscarriage of justice. But ... I'm not the only one. There are so many more," Li said.
Bo's trial could be held within weeks, reports said Wednesday, nearly a week after he was indicted for corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power.
Reuters news agency, citing three sources, reported that Bo has agreed to plead guilty in an apparent bid to earn a more lenient sentence, although it was not clear if he would plead guilty to all or only some of the charges.
Life is hard for whistle-blowers from any country, however.
"If the person being accused knows who accused them, of course they're going to find a way [to attack them], even to the point of killing them to shut them up," Xie said. "This is the same whether you are Chinese or non-Chinese."
"That's why it is imperative that there is a system in place to protect whistle-blowers. Without such a system in place, talking about anti-corruption is a joke," he said.
Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.