FOSHAN, CHINA — The last time his parents saw Liao Mengjun alive, he was heading to school to pick up his junior high school diploma.
A few hours later, they were called to the morgue. They found that their lanky 15-year-old son's forehead had been bashed in. His right knee jutted through the skin. Both his arms had been broken. He had several stab wounds, internal injuries and a swollen foot.
His index finger was slashed, suggesting his tormentors had tried to make him write something in his own blood.
As if things could be worse, writer Liao Zusheng and his wife, Chen Guoying, concluded that they knew who had killed their son: his teachers. And they believed they knew why: because of their bitter, public complaints about unauthorized fees and systemic corruption in schools and across Chinese society.
Corruption is an everyday experience for millions of Chinese that taints not just schools, but relations in business, on farms and in factories, and potentially any contact citizens have with officialdom. Foshan appears no more corrupt than any other city in China, experts say. It is noteworthy only as an example of a pervasive problem that threatens China's stability and political system.
Senior Communist Party officials know that decades of remarkable economic progress are at risk if graft and bribery stretch the chasm between the haves and have-nots too wide. But they have limited room to maneuver. Any meaningful effort to crack down endangers the party's monopoly on power.
The system depends on legions of police, local party and government officials to enforce Beijing's policies and quash dissent. All too often, critics say, local officials regard their position as a license to steal.
Throughout the country, the prodigious rate of economic growth has created a gold rush mentality. Absent both the strictures and the social safety network of Mao Tse-tung's rigid system, millions of people are seeking ways to prosper -- legally or illegally.
Corruption accounts for an estimated 3% to 15% of a $7-trillion economy, and party membership can be an invitation to solicit bribes or cut illegal land deals. Membership hit 74 million at the end of 2007, a 10% jump from 2002, as moneymaking opportunities increasingly trumped ideology.
Nearly 5,000 officials at the county level or above were punished for corruption over the last year, state media reported Friday.
"Of course everyone hates corruption," said Qiao Zhanxiang, a Beijing lawyer who took on the Ministry of Railways for alleged price gouging and lost. "But everyone also wants to be a part of it."
The result is a growing divide between those who benefit from corruption and their victims. It is at the grass-roots level where this chasm is most harshly felt, among those abused by the system, like Liao and Chen, or others who have simply been left behind.
"Common Chinese people are in hell," said Ai Xiaoming, a documentary film producer and professor at Zhongshan University in the neighboring city of Guangzhou. "Hell is not some future. It's right now."
Foshan, or "Buddha Mountain," is the ancestral home of martial arts star Bruce Lee, the place where severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was first observed, and the source of some of the worst air pollution in the Pearl River delta industrial heartland.
Factories produce ceramics, furniture, toys and household appliances, including items sold by Wal-Mart, Kmart, Avon and Home Depot.
But if you spend time in Foshan, a city of 5.9 million residents and 2.3 million migrant workers, you find it's also a place where bridges and houses collapse; where half- finished skyscrapers sit empty and tilting dangerously.
It's a place where counterfeit currency shows up in ATMs and pay packets.
It's a place where factory workers from inland provinces can be shaken down, beaten -- and allegedly sometimes even killed by brutal auxiliary police.
It's a place where a cash-stuffed "red envelope" can ensure that doctors do their best in the operating room, or that you'll pass your driving test even if you never leave the parking lot.
In China, it's also unremarkable, said Ren Jianming, vice director of the Clean Government Research Center at Beijing's Qinghua University: "What you observed in Foshan can be seen to a certain extent everywhere."
To play -- or not
Liao, a former soldier and a longtime Communist Party member, and his wife say officials at Huangqi Middle School turned against them after he spoke out against a $3,900 "selection fee" the school tried to charge without a receipt.
He also posted several essays on the Internet on corruption and waste in China.
Frustrated by what they said was systemic police harassment and stonewalling, including refusal to release their son's autopsy report, Chen and Liao decided to investigate the death themselves.