BEIJING With a tale of a dead pet tortoise given Buddhist rites and a senior official shedding tears for his crimes, state television has begun airing a documentary that takes viewers behind the scenes of some of China's most dramatic corruption cases.
The eight-part series that kicked off late on Monday promises an unusual warts-and-all approach to revealing the story behind the dirty deals and extravagant lifestyles uncovered by graft busters from the ruling Communist Party.
President Xi Jinping has waged a sweeping war on deep-seated corruption since assuming power almost four years ago, vowing to go after powerful "tigers" as well as lowly "flies".
Three of those "tigers" get camera time in the first episode - Bai Enpei, the former party boss of southwestern Yunnan province; Zhou Benshun, an ex-party chief of northern Hebei province and Li Chuncheng, a former deputy party boss of southwestern Sichuan.
Bai and Li have both been convicted, while Zhou awaits trial.
The juiciest details come from the probe into Zhou.
Against a backdrop of images of a Buddhist temple and to the sound of monks chanting, the documentary describes Zhou's involvement in "superstition".
Party officials are not supposed to practice religion and the charge of superstition is often levelled against the corrupt to further blacken their names.
Zhou "set his expectations upon protection from supernatural beings and was widely involved in superstitious practices", the narrator says.
"After a tortoise died at his home, he specially had scriptures transcribed and buried with it."
Zhou even had a nanny for his pets, investigator Wang Han told the programme.
The three disgraced officials all admitted their guilt in appearances on the show. It was not possible to confirm if they participated willingly, or to reach family members or lawyers for comment.
However, the party views contrition and confession favourably, and officials have avoided death sentences if they are judged to have shown remorse or cooperated.
Describing his failings, Sichuan's Li, given a 13-year jail term last year, struggled and failed to keep back tears.
"From a young age I hoped that under the leadership of the party ... I could get progress for society, make the people happy," Li said.
"In the end, because of myself, I didn't get there. I really let the party down. I let the people down."
The show is called "Always on the Road", a reference to the party's vow not to relax in stamping out corruption, and further revelations are promised later in the week.
The first episode was widely discussed on Chinese social media, with some saying they found Li's tears theatrical and unconvincing.
In a separate statement on its microblog, state broadcaster CCTV said a court in eastern China's Jiangsu province had opened the corruption trial into Ling Zhengce, the elder brother of Ling Jihua, a jailed one-time aide to former President Hu Jintao.
CCTV said Ling Zhengce, the former deputy head of the parliamentary advisory body in the coal-rich northern province of Shanxi, had admitted to illegally receiving assets worth 16 million yuan ($2.37 million) through his son, Ling Hushuai.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Michael Perry)