China has removed from government payrolls more than 160,000 staff who were drawing a salary but who never showed up for work, official media reported.
Since the start of President Xi Jinping's "mass line" public opinion campaign last year, 162,629 "phantom staff" have been struck from government payrolls across the country, Xinhua news agency reported.
The largest number of such "officials," some of whom are believed to be friends and family members of actual working officials, was found in the northern province of Hebei, where 55,793 staff were being paid without showing up for work.
Meanwhile, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, more than 28,000 "phantoms" were identified and removed, with some 15,000 expunged from payrolls in central Henan province, Xinhua reported.
It said just 531 "redundant people" were found in Beijing, while 327 of them have been removed.
But no "phantoms" were discovered in the Shanghai municipal or Tibetan regional governments, it added.
Economics professor Xu Dianqing of Canada's University of Western Ontario said the phenomenon of "eating from the payroll" is a classic and widespread form of corruption in China.
"Those who eat from the payroll take national resources, and yet there is no actual employee," he said. "They are handed out a certain amount of money."
"The fact that this phenomenon even exists shows the government is already pretty corrupt."
He said the majority of "phantoms" are found on the payrolls of large and poorly regulated state-owned enterprises.
"The problem lies with the system," Xu said. "Under a Western democratic system, there are different parties exercising supervision, so it's pretty rare to find people eating from the payroll in those places."
According to Beijing-based lawyer Li Jingping, the concept of "taxpayers' money" was previously unfamiliar to many Chinese citizens, but is increasingly becoming more current.
"There's a rumor going around online at the moment that the concept of taxpayers' money has been banned," Li said.
Cause of social tension
The phenomenon of phantom officials has sparked widespread public anger, and has been cited by the ruling Chinese Communist Party's own analysts as a major cause of social tension.
Xi launched the "mass-line" ideological campaign in June 2013 in a bid to ease tensions between party officials and the general public.
Among the directives under the campaign has been a ban on the consumption of rare and endangered species at official banquets, a limit on gift-giving on official business, and a slashed budget for official vehicles.
Netizens have also blown the whistle on extravagant behavior by officials, including spotting their designer clothing, expensive jewelry, and researching their assets, and tracking down girlfriends and mistresses.
However, some netizens who joined such campaigns have been hauled in on suspicion of "spreading rumors online" by China's state security police, while several prominent activists who called openly on the leadership to reveal details of their assets have been jailed on public order offenses.
According to Xu, the entire campaign has been aimed at winning back popular support for the Communist Party.
"They're not allowed to have extravagant food and drink now," he said. "I think about 90 percent of ordinary people would welcome that."
In January, the Henan provincial government admitted that it had paid out some 118 million yuan (U.S. $19.2 million) in taxpayers' money to such people.
According to professor Xin Ming of the Central Committee's Party School, many "phantoms" are related to genuine officials in some way.
"The lack of effective supervision from higher authorities and light punishments after exposure are also important factors," Xin was quoted as saying by the official China Daily newspaper last month.
Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.