The children of the wealthy and well-connected in China enjoy enormous privileges over their poorer counterparts: access to elite kindergartens and primary schools, expensive tutors, European vacations, flashy Italian and German sports cars and generous allowances.

But in a country where cash and connections rule, one bastion of meritocracy, it was thought, remained: admission to a university. It was no myth that a high score on China’s famously difficult national college entrance examination guaranteed a spot at a top university and a ticket to the middle class, and maybe beyond. Admission did not depend on the thickness of a father’s wallet, but rather on the content of a student’s mind.

confession to bribery on Thursday by Cai Rongsheng, the former admissions director for Renmin University, has called into question the integrity of that process. On trial in the eastern city of Nanjing, Mr. Cai admitted to accepting more than $3.6 million in illegal payments from 2005 to 2013 to help 44 students obtain a spot at the prestigious Beijing school, or to allow students already there to change their majors, the website of the state-run China News Service reported. No verdict has been announced in Mr. Cai’s case.

Mr. Cai, 50, was first arrested in late 2013 as he was trying to flee to Canada with a fake passport, according to news reports at the time. Among the wealthy students who benefited from his help was the daughter of a Hong Kong businessman, China News Service reported on Thursday. In July, Ji Baocheng, who was Renmin University’s president when Mr. Cai worked there, had his Communist Party membership suspended for two years, China Daily, a state-run newspaper, reported. The paper said that Mr. Ji had been suspected of “improper behavior relating to university enrollment” after Mr. Cai’s arrest.

Corruption in higher education has been one of the many focal points of President Xi Jinping’s antigraft campaign, now entering its fourth year. Eight officials from the Communication University of China, including its top two officials, were punished in November for violating the school’s austerity code; they were said to have driven luxury cars, held banquets with university funds and sent the university’s finances into “chaos.” Officials at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications were found to have made false expense reports.

The ruling Communist Party’s antigraft agency has singled out 32 people working in higher education for investigations this year, Xinhua reported last month. Yuan Guiren, China’s outspoken education minister, who has railed against the use of Western textbooks in China’s classrooms, was cited in The Beijing News this week as saying that corruption would not be tolerated in the education system.

David Moser, who has been teaching in Beijing universities for two decades and is the academic director at a Chinese-language program at Capital Normal University, said the corruption that had seeped into the admissions system may stem from what many saw as necessary changes to how students won entry to universities.

Until fairly recently, the only criterion for admission was a student’s score on the gaokao, the college admissions test administered to millions every summer. But the result was student bodies that lacked diversity and a system that rewarded rote learning, with many creative and talented students denied admission, Mr. Moser said in a telephone interview. New policies introduced over the past decade gave some universities the ability to select students by considering other factors, including musical ability, athletic prowess or skills at foreign languages.

But allowing admissions officers to use their own judgment, Mr. Moser said, has also given them influence that they can barter.

“The attempt was a good one, which was to try to get a different variety of students that maybe deserved to be in the college environment who didn’t excel at passing tests,” Mr. Moser said. “Instead of doing what they hoped it would, which is to attract a more broad and varied group of students, it actually just opened up another little arena for corruption.”

Many well-to-do Chinese families now bypass the system entirely, sending their children to the United States and other countries for college or even, increasingly, for secondary school.

By MICHAEL FORSYTHE December 4, 2015 in The New York Times