A man walks past an advertisement of a foreign brand watch in Shanghai, China. China’s central government announced new rules this summer limiting the purchase of luxury goods “above certain standards.” (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

In the end, it wasn’t the Chinese official’s handling of a bus crash that got him in big trouble. It wasn’t the tone-deaf photo of him grinning at the scene, where 36 lives had just been consumed in flames.

It was his watches. A Montblanc TimeWalker he bought for $5,500. What looked to be two Swiss-manufactured Omegas, a gold-toned Rolex Oyster Perpetual and a tasteful yet understated jet-black Rado.

After the crash got their attention, angry and resourceful Chinese bloggers dug up pictures to document the portly Shaanxi provincial chief’s expensive timepiece collection. They accused Yang Dacai of abusing his position to get rich — an increasingly common refrain in a country where corruption is rampant — and argued that no official at his salary level could afford such luxury goods.

This month, in a nod to the online pressure, local government officials confirmed that Yang was under investigation.

China’s “netizens” have grown in force in recent years, collaborating via Twitter-like microblogs. And they have found easy pickings among their luxury-flaunting local leaders.

The problem has gotten so bad that China’s central government announced new rules this summer limiting the purchase of luxury goods “above certain standards.” The rule, however, will likely have little effect, since it applies to agencies as a whole rather than individual officials.

With a once-in-a-decade leadership change approaching this fall and the party’s image already tainted by a series of other scandals, top leaders of the Communist Party are especially nervous.

And yet, despite all that, many officials still seem to be drawn like moths to the gleam of the luxury watch.

“It is a sign of having face, or status. Chinese officials just need that,” said one blogger, who is China’s best known chronicler of officials’ watches. Under the facetious pseudonym “General Secretary of Huaguoshan” — a reference to an authority-challenging monkey king of legend — he has examined thousands of snapshots and pinpointed the cost and make of watches belonging more than 300 officials over the past two years.

“I would estimate half of the officials who wear watches usually wear the expensive kind,” he said, under the condition of anonymity because of threats he said he has received from the government. The most popular seem to be the Constellation line by Omega, Integral by Rado and La Grande by Longines, he said.

It’s only natural for people to ask questions, he pointed out, when some officials’ collections are worth well more than their annual salary.

Facing his accusers

The trouble began for Yang late last month, when he responded to the horrific highway accident. Three of 39 passengers survived when their double-decker bus collided with a methanol tanker truck. And yet, in a picture taken by news photographers soon after, Yang appeared to be grinning ear to ear.

The image was circulated by thousands of outraged bloggers. Then, more photos emerged, diverting people’s attention and scorn from his grin to his posh wrist wear. Online appraisals of his collection reached as high as $60,000 — far beyond the typical salary for officials at his level.

“How else could he afford these watches if not through corruption?” read one of the thousands of tweets, which often combined anti-corruption messages with scorn for Yang’s generous belly as a symbol of his greed. “It’s not like he starved himself for 10 years to save up for them.”

It became clear that Yang was in serious trouble when even China’s state-run media began criticizing his watch fetish. So, in an almost unheard of move for Chinese officials — whose usual reaction is often utter silence — Yang tried to fight fire with fire, wading into the Twitterverse to face his accusers.

During an hour-long online chat, he fielded pointed questions, explaining that he was dealing with a stressful situation after the crash and smiled in part to try to put others there at ease.

“Just thinking about the smile now, I feel so much regret,” he wrote.

He was less regretful, however, about the watches.

Yang admitted owning the Montblanc and four others identified by bloggers but insisted he had bought them using his hard-earned personal income, and not through corrupt means, as his critics charged. He said he understood people’s concern and called their questions “reasonable and normal,” winning praise from some netizens.

But the detente lasted only hours, as new photos surfaced suggesting Yang owned many more than the five watches he claimed, inciting new anger. Soon the crowdsourcing effort online — a routine practice in China called “human flesh searching” — yielded photos of Yang’s designer glasses and belts.

One of the latest, posted Thursday, showed Yang wearing what looked like a pair of German-made Lotos glasses, one of the world’s most expensive brands, whose basic frames are said to start at $15,700. But in a country renowned for counterfeit Guccis, it has been impossible to verify any items beyond those Yang already admitted to owning.

Yang did not answer calls to his office last week. Provincial authorities said he is being investigated but have not explained what for. But officials said he is not being investigated at the most serious level — an internal procedure called “shuanggui,” in which party officials are spirited away and, according to human rights groups, often suffer physical and psychological torture.

An unexpected response

Many bloggers are suspicious about the latitude that China’s government has given bloggers on Yang’s case. Some think that party leaders, struggling with much more serious scandals from recent months, are happy to turn citizens’ attention to a low-level bureaucrat.

“It’s weird this time. There’s been no censorship or crackdown,” said Huaguoshan, China’s leading watch blogger.

Just this winter, for example, after a series of successful watch identifications, Huaguoshan found his microblog suddenly shut down.He was subsequently “invited to tea” by state security officials late at night, and as a result stopped posting almost all his work.

He continues in private to add to his catalogue of officials’ blinged-up wrist wear but said he has grown disillusioned with his work online.

Chasing down evidence of official wrongdoing will get only harder, he noted, as people become more cautious about openly displaying their luxury goods.

“And in the end,” he said with a sigh, “no matter how many watches we catch and human flesh searches we conduct, it is no replacement for a real judiciary system. That is the only way corruption will end.”

Zhang Jie contributed to this report.