XILINHOT, China — 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.
An official government site also showed Fan was to be promoted to be the police chief of Sunitezuoqi from a lower-ranked deputy position in Xilinhot. Xu said Fan lost his rank last year when he was implicated during the investigation against Liu, and is now a regular police officer.
In Xilingol, local officials said Liu's case is a thing of past and that office-buying is limited to a handful.
"The majority of our cadres are good. Only a few are corrupt," said Yao Situ, director of foreign affairs.
He said local governments are recruiting and promoting cadres through democratic, fair and transparent competitions that value merit above anything else.
Many experts, however, say graft continues to flourish thanks to opaque government, a lack of accountability, the absence of independent supervision and ineffective punishment. They say that in China's one-party government, personnel decisions are made by a few powerful people despite policies and procedures stipulating collective rulings.
"Simply put, in China's cadre selection procedure, the party chief, the deputy chief for personnel, and the director of personnel wield the real power. For office-seekers, it is far more cost-effective to bribe them than to bribe voters in a democratic election," said He Zengke, who has studied China's corruption for more than 20 years. He is director of the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics, a Beijing-based think tank.
In a heavily regulated country where the government controls resources, it seems almost all government offices can be a profit-making enterprise.
Transportation officials take kickbacks for road projects. Planning directors cash in on their approval powers. Police chiefs dismiss cases for private payments. Judges accept bribes for lighter sentences.
Office-buying is difficult to root out in part because it is so prevalent in China. Those tasked with combatting corruption – such as party chiefs and prosecutors – are often guilty of it themselves.
Sometimes office-buying is uncovered by chance. In northeastern China's Heilongjiang province, a scandal emerged following an assault on police officers who were investigating prostitution in a bath center.
The assault led authorities to examine the business's finances. They found problematic loans that implicated a senior official at a local state-run bank, according to state media.
Investigators uncovered a pyramid of graft. One official, Li Gang, accepted bribes totaling 2,100,000 yuan ($330,000) from more than 35 people over promotional issues. Li himself paid Suihua party secretary Ma De to be a county party secretary. And Ma got his job by paying 800,000 yuan ($127,000) to Han Guizhi, a Heilongjiang party official in charge of personnel affairs.
Han sold other top positions as well, including the chief prosecutor, the chief of the provincial supreme court and the chief of the personnel bureau, according to state media reports.
In 2010, several senior officials fell to corruption charges, including Huang Yao, former deputy party secretary for southwestern China's Guizhou province, and Wang Huayuan, a party standing committee member overseeing discipline inspection in eastern China's Zhejiang province. State media said they had profited from "job assignments" but did not offer more details.
Now, a criminal investigation against Huang Sheng, formerly the vice governor of eastern China's Shandong province, has silenced the Dezhou government, where many officials were promoted during Huang's tenure as the city's party secretary, according to state media.
Office-buying is just one facet of the pervasive corruption culture in China, where government officials routinely embezzle public funds, take bribes in awarding contracts, and favor family and friends in promotion.
China's most notorious corruption scandal in years involves disgraced politician Bo Xilai, who is accused of taking "huge amounts" of money to seek profits for others through public power. His deputy Wang Lijun took money from businesspeople and other contacts, and in exchange, he released detained criminal suspects when his contributors asked. But there is no confirmed report that Bo bought or sold public office.
In Xilinhot, the mood alternates between indignation and resignation among retired cadres who gather every day in an old hospital administration building to exchange gossip over mahjong tiles and playing cards.
"I cannot understand today's corruption. No one dared to do that under Mao," said 73-year-old Wu Lagai, a retired weather bureau official who was watching a game of Chinese chess.
"I simply cannot accept it. Is this because the punishment is too light? I think that might be the problem's source," he said.
"There are countless Liu Zhuozhis," said Wang Qi, a 70-year-old retired economic development official. "For village cadre and up, if you want any position, you pay for it. The more money you pay, the higher position you get. That's an open secret. The public knows, but there's nothing they can do.
"Unless Chairman Mao came back," Xu said.
"Not even Chairman Mao," Wang said. "It needs a thorough reform."