CHENGDU, China – A Chinese police car had been tipped onto its side by an angry crowd. TV footage showed its lights still blinking.
It was the most striking example of anger directed at allegedly corrupt officials after this month's earthquake in China, where the authoritarian government usually keeps tight control of society and quickly suppresses dissent.
• PHOTOS: Earthquake Aftermath
• Official: At Least 4,000 Children Orphaned by Earthquake
• Photographer Captured Bride, Groom as Earthquake Hit China | PHOTOS
The scale of the disaster, which officials say could have a death toll of more than 80,000 with 5 million homeless, has given people more room than normal to express their frustrations.
Parents have gathered bags of concrete dust from collapsed schools, calling it evidence of shoddy construction, and protested in the rubble. Citizens question the transparency of relief donations, such as why some tents marked "disaster only" have appeared in upscale neighborhoods barely touched by the quake.
Chinese people have built up years of deep distrust of officials seen as corrupt and indifferent in a society where everyone scrambles for a piece of the blazing economy.
Even as China's top leaders have won praise for their response to the country's worst disaster in a generation, the skepticism remains, especially about local officials.
In a rare public outburst captured last week in footage obtained by AP Television News, hundreds of residents of Deyang city gathered outside a children's clothing store where they suspected an official had stashed 10 boxes of earthquake relief goods.
The footage shows the crowd cheering as two young men climb on a police car and stomp around. One raises his fist. The footage does not show what happens next, but cuts to a shot of the car upturned, the street around it empty.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency, normally quiet on any sign of Chinese unrest, didn't mention the scenes. But it did report that a Deyang official had been detained on suspicions of misusing earthquake aid.
In a further sign of the government's sensitivity on the issue, the ruling Communist Party's top anti-graft body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, issued guidelines last week promising "quick, strict and harsh penalties" for any officials caught embezzling quake relief, Xinhua reported.
In another case, police had to break up a crowd of about 500 that had gathered around a relief tent in an upscale neighborhood in Chengdu, the capital of hardest-hit Sichuan province. Several people were playing mahjong inside, and a man said he "took the tent through connections," the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper reported.
"We are angry, surprised and sad that those tents are not used properly," Li Chengyun, vice governor of Sichuan, told journalists. "We will punish those violations severely. We welcome the watchdog role of the reporters, because such practices are despicable."
The number of quake-related corruption cases is unknown. The discipline commission did not respond to a faxed request from The Associated Press for information.
"This task is a test of our administrative ability, as well as our ability to win the public's trust," Premier Wen Jiabao said in a recent interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix Satellite Television, describing the government's response to the questions and accusations.
The government wants to keep the positive image people had of it just after the quake, including widespread praise for the premier, who arrived on the scene within hours and famously referred to himself as "Grandpa Wen" among survivors.
"This is a moment when the government's public confidence has just been improved, and the public rely very much upon it," said Ai Xiaoming of Sun Yat-sen University in southern Guangzhou city.
Perhaps the most lingering issue will be the angry questions from the public over why so many schools collapsed in the quake. Already, officials have promised to investigate any possible corruption in their construction.
"I believe people will not give up questioning for a long time after this," Ai said. "And it's reasonable because it's a way to avoid or diminish similar cases in future."
In the quake zone, the recent praise for China's top leaders does not extent to local Communist Party officials.
In Xiushui town, farmer Yu Jun sat near his tent home and praised the central government's efforts to care for quake victims. But when asked about local officials, his face flushed with anger.
"The local officials are corrupt," Yu, 44, said. "During the first few days after the quake, they never came by to check on us. People went looking for them and couldn't find them."
A few blocks away, factory worker Zhao Shiming looked at his toppled house on the banks of a trash-strewn stream.
"The government will have to give me money to rebuild my house, but I have no confidence in the local officials," the 50-year-old said. "They'll put the money in their own pockets. They'll spend it on lavish banquets. They just care about themselves."