HONG KONG—Officials in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo who have served time in jail for taking bribes are habitually being offered large cash sums in "compensation" by the people whose bribes they took, according to local media reports.
The local judiciary has filed a report to central authorities in Beijing about the practice, which in some cases can involve payments of several million yuan, local news organizations said.
But legal experts and social activists said the problem is not confined to Ningbo, and has been found across China in recent years.
"Such a compensation fee is generally given [to officials] by those who were their partners," said Henan-based An Jun, founder of the nongovernment pressure group Graft Watch.
An said that those who bribed officials generally remained loyal to them, and tried their hardest to protect them. If that became impossible, and the officials were jailed for corruption, then they would send money to them while behind bars, and pay a "compensation fee" when they were released.
"This is extremely common," An said. "The root cause lies in the fact that China is a country that still doesn't implement the rule of law."
"Tyrants in their own fiefdom"
He said middle and lower-ranking officials are able to do as they please.
"No one can tell them what to do, and they are tyrants in their own fiefdoms," An said.
"The purpose of the jail compensation fee is clearly to protect the interests of their circle of influence," he added. "You hear about this everywhere [in China]."
U.S.-based Chinese legal expert Lu Wenyue said that the practice isn't illegal, however.
"When a person gets out of prison after serving time, they're just an ordinary citizen again," Lu said. "They're no longer an official, and therefore the money paid to them, whether it be millions ... or hundreds of millions, cannot be said to constitute a bribe."
"From a legal point of view, there is nothing illegal to discuss if one individual gives money to another," he said.
"It's not a crime according to my understanding of China's legal system, and it wouldn't be a crime in the United States or in other Western countries, either," Lu added.
"It doesn't matter how many presents an individual wants to give ... The official has already done their time and the matter [of corruption] is finished."
But An said that in local Chinese politics, the matter is not that simple.
"If a person is powerful in a certain location, then of course people are going to want to give him compensation when he gets out of jail," An said.
"That's because they are afraid of the presence of that power in their lives."
An said that at the local level, there is little difference between power wielded by local officials, and by crime syndicates and mafia families.
"If a member of the mafia got sent to prison, then the mafia would take care of them too. This is quite normal," he said.
Lu said corruption will continue to get worse in China as long as the country is subject to authoritarian rule by the Communist Party.
"They have substituted Party rule for the rule of law, and they have substituted Party discipline for the law itself," he said.
"It is this situation which gives rise to corruption."
China was ranked 72 of 179 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2008. The survey included bribery, embezzlement, backdoor deals, nepotism, patronage, and statistical falsification as forms of corruption.
Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.