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Probe: Chinese official traded influence for jade

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DIDI TANG | January 7, 2014 05:24 AM EST | AP

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BEIJING (AP) — A Chinese businessman wanted a senior provincial official on his side and took a hint on how to do that when a deputy governor commented on the carved jade hanging from his belt, investigators allege.

They said Ji Lichang began acquiring jade for former Anhui Deputy Governor Ni Fake in return for mining rights and land for his metal business.

In a report released Monday, China's top corruption watchdog said Ni accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, much of it in carved jade.

The case illustrates how corrupt officials and businessmen are increasingly concealing bribery by using gifts of artwork and precious stones rather than money.

Ni came under scrutiny last June and was expelled from the ruling Communist Party and removed from office in September.

He is among at least a dozen senior officials who have been ousted since President Xi Jinping became China's leader in November 2012. Xi has staked his administration's reputation on fighting corruption, which he says threatens the legitimacy of the party's rule.

In its report, the Communist Party's Discipline Inspection Commission did not give a total sum for Ni's alleged bribe-taking, but said it dated back to at least 2005 and that nearly 80 percent of it was in jade.

It said Ni even sent a jade expert along with Ji on jade-buying trips, and that the deputy governor and businessman developed a close relationship.

The report said Ni had similar bonds with several other businessmen, who bought him jade and artwork and paid for his vacation expenses and home decorations.

Liu Shanying, a political scientist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Chinese officials and businessmen have reached a tacit agreement to avoid cash transactions while trading favors.

"It has become a bureaucratic ecology that has greatly hurt the public interest," Liu said, noting that cash bribes are considered low-class among senior officials.

Many corrupt Chinese officials also find it challenging to launder cash bribes. Ni told investigators that jade was a better option because it could easily be hidden and passed as an avocation.

Ni apparently dodged an investigation in 2012 when he returned some of his jade collection to Ji but reclaimed the stones when the investigation ended, the report said.

Ni also said he had considered placing the stones in a private gallery under Ji's name to evade investigators, it said.