Chinese bloggers trying to expose corruption say they are coming under increasing physical and verbal attack over their reports, in what anti-graft activists describe as another blow to efforts to make Chinese officials more accountable.
At least six self-styled whistleblowers have been assaulted or harassed in recent months, according to media reports, Internet postings and several of the bloggers who spoke to Reuters.
Two unidentified men stabbed blogger Li Jianxin in the face and splashed acid on his back on July 8. Li, now blind in his right eye, remains in hospital in the southern city of Huizhou.
The attacks coincide with a government crackdown on activists demanding officials disclose their wealth, underscoring the limits of an anti-corruption push by President Xi Jinping.
Xi, who became president in March, has called for action against graft, warning, as many Chinese leaders have before him, that the problem could threaten the ruling Communist Party's survival.
"If President Xi Jinping is serious about fighting graft, then he should ensure that these individuals are protected from such intimidation and persecution," said Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Xi has said the "supervision of the people" is needed to fight corruption.
Indeed, Li said he and other whistleblowers were encouraged when they heard officials discuss "public opinion-based oversight" of power during China's annual parliament session in March. Li said he thought that meant the government wanted the Internet to be a tool to weed out corruption.
"It was like a boost to the heart," Li, 45, told Reuters from his hospital bed where he awaits three more operations in addition to the three he has undergone.
"It signified that the nation's leaders attach importance and support our anti-corruption efforts on the Internet."
Li, who runs a small restaurant, began posting accusations of official misconduct, illegal land grabs and nepotism in the city of Huizhou in Guangdong province just over a year ago.
In March, someone tossed a brick through his daughter's bedroom window. Li was not cowed.
"If they have the guts, they should take a gun and shoot me dead," Li wrote in an online forum after that incident.
Li does not know who attacked him last month and police have not made any arrests. He vowed to continue his online reports.
The postings contain few documents to support his accusations and none of Li's dozens of exposes have led to investigations. Much of his information comes from informants, Li said, adding he had never been sued for slander.
Huizhou officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
INTERNET IS FORUM FOR WHISTLEBLOWING
While whistleblowing mostly occurs inside organisations in Western countries, in China it plays out on the Internet, a barometer of public opinion for the country's middle-class and where people can reach a wide audience.
There are some three dozen Chinese whistleblowers who regularly post reports online under their own names about alleged corruption and misconduct, according to Reuters estimates based on the number of microblogs as well as media reports.
In January, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, the party's anti-corruption authority, said it welcomed public participation in fighting corruption if people used their real names on the Internet.
"Any real-name whistleblowing report will be prioritised and will be given a timely response", Cui Shaopeng, the commission's spokesman, told a news conference at the time.
Authorities have investigated some online accusations since then and jailed several low-level officials.
The commission has a page on its website for tips from citizens, although it is unclear how many it has gotten recently. Between 2008 to 2012, the commission said it received 301,000 whistleblowing reports online. Officials at the commission, contacted by Reuters, declined to comment.
Still, Beijing remains wary of giving people too much latitude and does not give legal protection to whistleblowers.
Indeed, Zhu Ruifeng, one of China's most prominent whistleblowers, discovered last month the authorities had deleted his four microblog accounts. One was reactivated recently after a public outcry.
Zhu, who runs a whistleblowing website called "People Supervision Net" in Beijing, does not know who closed the accounts but reckons it was because of his recent postings on a government official who had spent lavishly on his mistress.
While he believed the party's discipline commission was sincere in fighting corruption, other government departments did not always like what he did.
"Sometimes I'll arouse the attention of the discipline commission. (The authorities) have a love-hate relationship with me," he said.
Last year, Zhu released a video of Lei Zhengfu, a district party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing, having sex with his much younger mistress.
Communist Party officials are banned from having mistresses, and the video came to symbolise to many the excesses of the ruling elite. Lei was sentenced in June to 13 years jail for bribery.
Zhu said he had never been assaulted but had received threats through microblog messages and emails.
"TRUTH CANNOT BE HIDDEN FOR LONG"
In the northeastern city of Dalian, microblogger Bi Meina has accused an official there of misconduct. She posted the claims on her microblog but did not provide any documentation.
Since May, Bi said she has been followed and received calls and text messages from anonymous users, who have hurled insults.
"The distress is definitely there," Bi said by email. "I have thought of giving up ... and moving my family abroad."
In Maoming, another Guangdong city, an official called Zhu Guoyu has sought to expose local corruption with his online reports.
Nine officials had been convicted as a result of his postings, said Zhu Guoyu, the secretary-general of the Maoming People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and head of the international liaison office in the city.
His bosses don't like what he does.
"They try to keep me busy so I don't have time to whistleblow," he said.
Last September, men in two cars chased him. In 2011, he was stabbed by unknown assailants but survived.
Despite the threats faced by bloggers and whistleblowers, the tide would turn in their favour, Zhu Guoyu said.
"There are so many people watching, I believe paper can't wrap up a fire," he said, referring to a Chinese saying that means the truth cannot be hidden for too long.