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China faces rising corruption at grassroots level

Liu Zirong, a village official in south China's Guangdong Province, stood trial Tuesday for allegedly misappropriating almost 24 million yuan (3.5 million U.S. dollars) of public money.

Liu, secretary of the Communist Party of China branch of Zidong Village, was charged with squandering village assets on gambling and loans to his own company, said prosecutors at the hearing at the Chancheng District Court of Foshan City.

Most of the money was compensation for land expropriated from villagers from 2004 to 2006, prosecutors said.

Liu was among the 78 village cadres who were investigated over allegations of abuse of power by prosecutors in Guangdong in the first quarter of 2009.

According to the statistics issued in April by the Supreme People's Procuratorate, a total of 4,968 village cadres in village committees were involved in corruption cases last year, 1,090 more than in 2006.

The country has more than 5 million village cadres, but traditionally focuses only on high-ranking officials in its anti-corruption endeavors.

"Pinned at the bottom of the power pyramid, their appetite somehow has grown insatiable," said Zhong Wendong, director of the commission on criminal justice of Guangzhou Municipal Lawyers' Association.

With the rapid development of China's collective economy, abuse of power by village chiefs had begun to prevail, especially in wealthy coastal villages, Zhong said.

Such cases could involve embezzlement or appropriation of six or seven-figure sums, he said. "In the past, if just thousands of yuan were involved, a case could be identified as 'major'."

From 2003 to 2009, corruption cases involving 50,000 yuan or more accounted for 98 percent of the economic cases in rural areas of the relatively well-off Pearl River Delta, compared with 37 percent in less developed rural areas, according to the provincial anti-corruption bureau.

"Land-related wealth is always the prey for greedy village heads," said Fan Baoxuan, an expert on rural issues with the Communication University of China.

They could line their pockets overnight by embezzling government compensation for land use rights or selling out collective property in closed-door deals, Fan said.

The central government has been increasing support for rural public services, which also put great wealth in the hands of village heads.

Lack of supervision over village affairs could explain the ever-increasing corruption at grassroots level, said Wang Jinhua, an expert with the Law School of the Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics.

Since village officials are not civil servants, regulations for civil servants fail to cover them, Wang Jinhua said. "It is a loophole that has made corruption much easier at grassroots level."

Although villagers were endowed with rights to oversee their officials, most would rather submit when their interests were jeopardized for fear of reprisals, said Professor Hu Xuexiang, of the Law School of the South China University of Technology.

Luo, 66, a resident of Zidong village, was unhappy with elections in which Liu was always the sole candidate.

"He is the official and we are nobody. How can we rebel against the official?" he said.

To tackle the problem, anti-corruption officials in Guangdong have been urged to set up supervision teams to keep an eye on government affairs and financial issues at village level, such as the use of funds for poverty alleviation allocated by the central government.

Just and transparent elections of village heads could be equally crucial, Zhong Wendong said.