- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 31, 2012

XILINHOT, China (AP) — In a small town in northern China’s Inner Mongolia where sheep and cattle easily outnumber humans, Fan Chen paid a Communist Party boss three times an average urban resident’s annual salary to become a local police chief.

The scheme was exposed and fell apart, but it was hardly explosive news. It received just a one-line mention in state media. And a friend of Fan’s defended him by saying that by current standards, his misdeeds were insignificant.

“What he paid was simply a drizzle,” said Xu Huaiwei, a 68-year-old retired engineer. “It’s too common in China, and people have paid far more — millions, or tens of millions of yuan — for a government job.”

Fan was a small player in the latest of countless office-buying scandals that have touched Chinese officials from the village up to the provincial level. Some scandals implicate hundreds of officials, and state media reports show that the practice has spread to all arms of the government, including the legislature, police and courts.

Buying and selling office is so rampant in China that it has battered the ruling Communist Party’s image as an institution that promotes the competent, not the connected. The practice continues despite vows by Chinese leaders to eradicate it, and the public has grown increasingly disgusted.

Fighting corruption will be one of the biggest challenges for the party leadership that will be installed in November in a once-a-decade transition.

Anti-corruption crusaders have particularly warned against personnel corruption, saying it inevitably breeds other forms of corruption as office buyers seek returns on their money. But there have been no recent signs of new action from the government; the last time a leading official talked publicly about office-buying was two years ago.

“We want those who sell offices to be utterly discredited, and those who buy offices to suffer a double loss,” Li Yuanchao, head of the party’s central organization commission, said in 2010, when Beijing introduced a set of new personnel measures and waged a crackdown.

Xilinhot, nearly 400 miles north of Beijing, is a growing town that presents ripe opportunities for graft. It is the government seat to Xilingol, a Nebraska-sized region of about 1 million people where coal-mine pits are emerging from the premium grasslands.

In the region’s largest city, Western-style villas have mushroomed along a man-made lake in one of its newest developments, and young families go to the KFC, but sheep traders still haul their animals to a business-filled street to find buyers.

Fan was part of a web of office-buying centered on Liu Zhuozhi. First as Xilingol’s top executive and then as its chief party secretary, Liu ran the region from 2001 to 2008 before advancing to a vice governor post in Inner Mongolia’s capital city, Hohhot.

Last summer in a Beijing court, Liu was sentenced to life in prison for corruption, including selling various government jobs, according to the state-run Beijing News. Liu’s lawyer Xu Lanting confirmed the report, which says Liu took more than 8 million yuan ($1.2 million) in bribes — mostly by selling positions, including the one for Fan.

The report said Liu took 650,000 yuan ($103,000) from a man who eventually became the chief planner for Xilinhot, sold the city’s party secretary position for 640,000 yuan ($101,000), and accepted 500,000 yuan ($80,000) to promote a person to oversee government archives.

The report identifies Fan Chen only by his family name and said he paid 100,000 yuan ($16,000) to be promoted from a deputy to a chief in a different government unit.

The Associated Press could not reach Fan for comment. His friend Xu said Fan paid 300,000 ($48,000) for the promotion to be the police chief in Sunitezuoqi, another town in Xilingol. A propaganda officer from Sunitezuoqi confirmed that Fan Cheng was its last police chief.

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