Hunan official and veteran party member Wang Minggao found himself at the centre of media storm in June after he raised a simple but controversial idea. As head of a state-sponsored research group looking into ways to eliminate graft, the 49-year-old suggested that Beijing abolish the death penalty for corrupt officials who had fled the country. The suggestion ignited a storm of public protest when it appeared in the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend and resulted in Mr Wang being branded a sympathiser with crooked officials. But he insists that could not be further from the truth. For the past eight years, Mr Wang and his research group have worked on a state-sponsored project to find ways to prevent and root out corruption in the corridors of power and state-owned enterprises. Half of the group's members are government officials and all have a good understanding of the way the system works. Many of their ideas and conclusions have been heard by the nation's top officials, especially those in the Central Discipline Inspection Commission and others helping the central government tackle corruption. But Mr Wang refuses to specify how the proposals have influenced government policy. 'All in all, our research programme has received a positive response from the top level,' he said. At least 4,000 officials and businesspeople have fled the mainland since the early 1980s with up to US$50 billion in public money and taken refuge in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, government data shows. But the sensitivity of the cases means accurate figures for the funds stolen or the number of officials who have fled are hard to find. Mr Wang's group has studied several cases, sometimes using confidential central government information and at other times relying on its own understanding of how the government operates. Its three key recommendations are for the government to set up a social security number system for mainland citizens, apply civil rather than criminal law to extradite corrupt officials and create a register of family properties using real names. A central part of the proposals is the idea of abolishing the death penalty for corrupt officials, particularly those who have fled overseas and cannot be extradited due to opposition of western governments to China's widespread use of the punishment. Mr Wang said in the past two decades, the penalty had been applied to a broader range of offences as part of a policy of 'dealing a harsh and quick blow to criminals'. But it had been applied unevenly in many cases and introduced to send fear through officialdom. Former Jiangxi vice-governor Hu Changqing and National People's Congress vice-chairman Cheng Kejie were executed in 2000 and 14 officials were put to death that year in the notorious Xiamen Yuanhua smuggling and bribery case in Fujian . But other corrupt officials, such as former Liaoning Higher People's Court president Tian Fengqi and Shandong People's Political Consultative Conference vice-chairman Pan Guangtian managed to escape the firing squad despite similar convictions. 'The lack of uniformity in punishment handed out has damaged the international reputation of China's judicial system,' Mr Wang said. He said the death penalty had done little to curb official corruption and had become a major obstacle to Beijing's efforts to work with international organisations to recover stolen funds and extradite suspects. He recommends applying civil law so mainland courts have a better chance of freezing overseas bank accounts and repatriating stolen public money. 'Repatriating the stolen money will be of more material benefit to the public interest. This is a practical idea to reduce the negative impact of corruption in China,' he said. He added better day-to-day management of officials would help nip corrupt behaviour in the bud. 'Overemphasis and reliance on harsh punishment of corrupt officials has led to the country's failure to establish a rigorous administration and monitoring system,' Mr Wang said. 'Strict daily management and monitoring are better than harsh punishment.' His research has coincided with a national drive to rein in corruption and his project has received support from the Central Disciplinary Commission, the party's watchdog on members' behaviour. Corruption touches a sensitive public nerve as the number of cases mounts, the income gap widens and residents are deprived of adequate compensation for land acquisitions. So Mr Wang faced a barrage of criticism when his comments in the Southern Weekend were taken as sympathy for the corrupt. A June survey by People.com, Sina.com and other popular portals showed that more than 80 per cent of netizens were against his proposal. Mr Wang said he was 'glad to see the public holds such a strong hatred of corrupt officials - that means we are engaged in a good cause that benefits the public'. 'I know many of our proposals go against common sense and the traditional sentiment of Chinese, who believe a guilty person should pay for his crimes with his life,' he said. '[But] these measures are the most practical in light of China's current situation.'