Dressed in starched white shirts and black suit pants, more than 100 Communist Party county chiefs lined up in the Great Hall of the People last week to be feted by the country's leader as models of public service. President Xi Jinping, who did a stint as the party chief of Zhengding county, Hubei province, in the 1980s, praised the officials for their outstanding contributions, reminding them also of the need to steer clear of graft. The warning was warranted given their reputation for corruption among an increasingly sceptical public. "Everyone knows that county party chiefs are the most prone to corruption … Let's see if any of these 102 people will become corrupt officials in five years," one microblogger wrote. "[I] will thank heaven if one upright official can be found among these 102 chiefs," another said. County chiefs have been warned repeatedly to stay clean yet many of these grass-roots cadres continue to make headlines in graft scandals. From February 2014 to April this year, at least 38 county party chiefs were investigated for "serious violations of party discipline and law" - a stock phrase for corruption. In coal-rich Shanxi province 17 serving or former county party chiefs fell from grace last year. Counties are among the lower rungs of the administrative hierarchy but their bosses occupy unique ground: they are usually located far from authority but close to the sources of corruption. This means that they can reap staggering amounts in bribes - one former county party secretary in Jiangxi province took 39 million yuan (HK$49 million) during his time in office. Professor Zhu Lijia, from the Chinese Academy of Governance, said one of the big problems was the lack of oversight. "There are few constraints on the power of county party secretaries," Zhu said. "As the saying goes: 'Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.' It is very hard to supervise them." Party chiefs are also the senior officials in a county, despite nominally sharing the same rank as other county government heads. They have the final say over jobs and projects, and chair the committees that supervise discipline inspectors responsible for sniffing out corrupt officials at the county level. "[While I was] in office, a decision made by me would be unopposed 99.99 per cent of the time. Others would not dare support something I opposed," a former county party chief in Henan, who was later jailed, was quoted as saying by Xinhua. Zhu said the only way to rein in absolute power was tougher, multilayered oversight. The Central Party School has started training the roughly 3,000 county party chiefs on better administration and the programme is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. Addressing a class in January, Xi said: "Being an official and making a fortune are two paths. [If you want to] be an official, don't count on getting rich; [if you want to] be rich, don't become an official." But analysts doubt the approach will make a difference. "If the system doesn't change, training selected individual county party chiefs will not be of much use," Renmin University political science professor Zhang Ming said.