When Yang Xianghong, a middle-ranking Chinese Communist Party official, slipped away from a government delegation trip to Paris three weeks ago, he said he was visiting his daughter.
When he didn't come back, though, his disappearance sparked much speculation on state-run media that Mr. Yang was the latest escapee in a growing exodus of officials fleeing corruption probes.
If true, he joins as many as 10,000 corrupt Chinese officials who have fled the country over the past decade, taking as much as $100 billion of public funds with them, according to an estimate by Li Chengyan, head of Peking University's Anticorruption Research Institute.
More unexpected, however, was the heavy press coverage that Yang's walkabout attracted in a country where the government is generally reluctant to wash its dirty linens in public.
That suggests that "the government is sending a signal" that it regards "the number of officials fleeing as a very important problem which needs to be solved," says Mao Zhaohui, director of anticorruption studies at Beijing's Renmin University.
Corruption is pervasive at almost every level of the government, and it is a major factor eroding faith in the ruling Communist Party. Earlier this year, after thousands of schoolchildren died in the Sichuan earthquake, the Internet was ablaze with accusations that local officials had taken bribes to approve substandard materials for school construction.
Chinese President Hu Jintao has repeatedly declared that the fight against fraud is a top government priority and courts have handed down heavy sentences against prominent offenders.
Last year, the former head of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, was executed after being found guilty of taking bribes to approve thousands of new drugs.
Stiff punishments, however, do not appear to have curbed the phenomenon. Just this week, the deputy president of the Supreme Court and the head of parliament's budget committee were fired for corruption in an indication of how far the rot has spread even among the highest levels of government.
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