Authorities in the northern Chinese province of Hebei are probing a corruption case in which dozens of indebted people faked their own deaths and disappearances with the collusion of local officials, after whistleblower reports emerged online.
The fake death certificates were issued for 43 people, while a further 15 people were registered as "disappeared," enabling a rural credit cooperative to write off around 2.5 million yuan (U.S. $403,000) in loans, officials in Hebei's Shenzhou city said on Tuesday.
"The Hengshui and Shenzhou municipal discipline inspection commissions and police have begun investigations into the violation of credit regulations at the Shenzhou Municipal Rural Credit Cooperative, which was revealed on the Internet," the Shenzhou government said in a statement on its website.
It said two police station chiefs and credit cooperative branch directors in Bingcao village and Tangfeng township had been removed from office.
"Investigations are continuing," the statement said.
However, an official who answered the phone at the Shenzhou municipal government said that deputy mayor Wei Zhichun had recently received a promotion.
"The former deputy mayor has left," the official said. "He was promoted onto the municipal Party committee."
An employee who answered the phone at the Party committee declined to comment, referring inquiries back to the municipal government.
'No rule of law'
The announcement sparked anger among Chinese netizens, as well as surprise at the ingenuity of the scam.
"This is something previously unheard of," wrote lawyer Yuan Yulai on his verified microblog account. "This is a new kind of embezzlement and bribery."
Meanwhile, rights activist Li Huaping commented that the root cause of the scam was a lack of respect for the law in China.
"There is no rule of law in mainland China, but only rule by individuals," Li said in an interview on Tuesday.
"If you are well-connected ... you can treat the whole country as your private property," he said. "This is a sort of frenzied greed which is also very common."
"If the anti-corruption bureau, the police, or the discipline inspection commissions actually investigate someone, it's because they are using the probe as a tool in a power struggle, nothing more," Li said.
The Guangzhou-based news website KDnet said the practice of 'killing' or 'disappearing' lenders had been heard of before, however.
"These people are usually county-level civil servants, court officials, and village or township officials and their relatives," a KDnet article said.
"Ordinary people can't just get themselves killed off or disappeared," said the article, which was deleted soon after publication.
Beijing lawyer Xiao Guozhen said far more 'living dead' officials would be seen across China if no systemic changes were made.
"In the current political climate in mainland China, there are new forms of corruption emerging all the time," Xiao said. "This isn't surprising, although it does make one very angry."
"There is so much of this sort of corruption around that people's anger has turned to numbness," he said.
In February, authorities in the northern province of Shaanxi began investigating a former banking official accused online of amassing a huge Beijing property portfolio using forged identities.
Gong Aiai, a former deputy head of the Shenmu County Rural Commercial Bank in Shaanxi's Yulin city, was detained after allegations that she owned more than 20 properties under false names surfaced on the Internet, with evidence from whistle-blowers.
President Xi Jinping has warned that the ruling Chinese Communist Party must beat graft or lose power, sparking a nationwide clampdown on corruption.
However, political analysts say that officials with friends in high places are unlikely to be touched by the crackdown, and reports suggest many are liquidating their assets and making moves overseas.
China scored poorly in an annual global corruption index published last year by Transparency International, which measures perceptions of corruption around the world.
Mainland China ranked 80th out of 176 countries, down five places from the previous year.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.