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BEIJING (Reuters) - Already under pressure to create jobs and growth while clinging to absolute power, China's Communist Party faces a growing headache from Internet users keen to expose its members' sometimes questionable habits.
A pair of receipts from an upscale karaoke club sparked the latest Internet-led furor over government corruption earlier this month, ending the career of a mid-level bureaucrat from Liuyang, in southern Hunan province.
Scanned and uploaded by a nameless surfer, the dockets listed 47,000 yuan (nearly $7,000) worth of dining, massage and other services, prompting Internet users to ask how a public servant in a local media watchdog could stretch his meager government salary so far.
The Liuyang scandal followed a string of similar media storms in recent months, triggered by the Internet exposures of officials enjoying luxury overseas holidays in the name of "study" trips, or photographed wearing expensive-looking watches.
With China's state-controlled media often reluctant to report, and Party-appointed watchdogs sometimes embroiled in scandal themselves, China's Internet users have taken it upon themselves to ferret out official corruption.
"There is a sense that the central government has lost control over the county and city level officials in many places," said Rebecca McKinnon, an Internet expert at Hong Kong University.
"We've got the financial crisis and a lot of people concerned about corruption and how the nation's finances are managed."
Graft is hardly new in China, where the ruling Communist Party has warned it could prove their downfall.
But the latest scandals come amid demands for more transparency in the central government's 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion) stimulus plan to pump up the flagging economy.
"This year is clearly a very sensitive year politically ... We've got all kinds of reasons why the government would feel nervous," said McKinnon.
Fall-out from the global financial crisis has seen China's once-booming export machine falter and some 20 million workers lose their jobs, fanning fears of social unrest.
Another 1.2 million university graduates are out of work, weeks before Beijing passes the 20th anniversary of a bloody crackdown on student-led demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square in June.
As always, the government has attempted to stifle calls for political reform, launching an Internet crackdown in January ostensibly targeting pornography, but also shutting down blogging websites hosting debate deemed too edgy.
The ham-fisted suppression campaign, accompanied by the detention of dissidents calling for democratic reforms in a widely circulated online petition, has failed to silence critical Internet chatter.
Surfers have delighted in the "grass-mud horse," an Internet fad of videos and cartoons which uses a vulgar pun to mock the government's "harmonious society" slogan and protest online controls.
The corruption cases keep appearing online, then appearing in the papers, while edgy political discussions remain no less visible.
With an estimated 3,000 new websites created daily and more than six million new users coming online every month, the government is fighting a losing battle to stifle undesirable content, according to analysts.
"Scale is the killer here as far as control goes," said a Beijing-based IT manager who declined to be named.
"They can only be selective and surgical about unwanted content. They can look for unwanted signals and then when the signals are picked up, they can redirect the cavalry to the hotspot and get into it," the manager said.
While China's Internet surveillance remains highly pervasive, the surging tide of new subscribers is gradually forcing a change of tack in the way the government deals with the country's 300 million Internet users.
Before the country's annual parliament earlier this month, Premier Wen Jiabao held an online chat with Internet users, answering moderated questions about the global financial crisis, house prices, health care and checks on government power.
Officials in southwest Yunnan province invited Internet users to participate in a probe into a death of a young man in custody last month, which police at the detention center initially blamed on a game of hide-and-seek gone awry.
Internet users have been invited to become delegates in local people's congresses, alongside more traditionally tokenistic representatives for farmers and "model workers."
"I was surprised ... The government had noticed what I had done online," said Wang Xiaoli, a 46-year-old freelance photographer who was chosen as a member of parliament in Luoyang, a city in central Henan province.
Chinese leaders' engagement with Internet users and encouragement of their supervision of government functions is a positive development, if not wholly heart-felt, according to Hu Xingdou, a free media advocate and economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
"The attitude of government contains two aspects: they will continue to crack down on dissidents more and more severely, but they will tolerate the common people's voices that crowd the Internet," Hu said.
Few in China have any illusions that the Internet-triggered scandals that catch minor officials with their pants down could embroil a big fish with ties to Beijing.
"It is by no means certain that the dialogue will lead to changes to the system," said Wang Xixin, a law school professor at Peking University. "But it gives us space to imagine and expect."
Additional Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Megan Goldin