Images of Official Luxury Infuriate Chinese
For a passerby, the only difference between the official building of the Pei County government in Jiangsu Province and a luxury hotel, is a national flagpole and a giant rock carved with the characters “Serve the People” out front.
That slogan, a relic of the Maoist era, is meeting with an increasing amount of suspicion and mistrust in China: despite orders by Party leader Xi Jinping that cadres should become “close to the masses” and reduce their extravagant habits. Communist Party officials around China belie such visions with the monuments and accommodations they have constructed for their personal enjoyment, using the taxpayers’ money.
Amid Xi Jinping’s high-profile, anti-corruption campaign, such spending does not even count as outright corruption: “The corruption referred to by Xi Jinping is officials putting public money in their own pockets. But investment in government buildings isn’t included,” said Heng He, an independent political commentator that regularly appears on Chinese media.
“These workplaces, and living conditions, are part of officials’ gray income, but aren’t considered corruption,” he said.
Xi Jinping has called for a reduction in such expenses, but local officials have the means and incentive to skirt such regulations. Meanwhile, public anger at the privileges of official power in China continues to build.
Double Bed in the Office
The Pei County government compound consists of three magnificent buildings, along with a 10,000-square-meter (11,960-square-yard) plaza, situated around a large artificial lake. The furnishings on the inside are reportedly just as sumptuous.
One cadre’s office is 1,000 square feet large, and includes its own break room—with wood paneling, couches, plants, flowers, and a double bed.
“The double bed is the highlight,” one Internet user declared. The comment was forwarded thousands of times. Communist Party officials in China, in the public consciousness, are not typically noted for their sexual discretion.
Referring to a number of the sexual scandals that have engulfed the careers of Party cadres across China, an Internet user, writing anonymously, remarked: “Sigh! If we [officials] can’t do it in the office, where can we go? Is it safe in a hotel? Look at the Shanghai judges and Lei Zhengfu.”
In the Shanghai case, three judges and a court official were found to have taken prostitutes to a hotel, and were caught on camera by a disgruntled businessman. They paid for an expensive dinner, and then later entertainment, using public money, reports said. Lei Zhengfu was a city-level official in Chongqing who was caught on camera in a highly compromising position with a young woman.
It is incidents like those that have fueled ire from a public that demands more accountability and transparency from the Communist Party, but aren’t getting it.
“Now you don’t even leave your offices,” the anonymous netizen said.
That report about Pei County was carried by the Communist Party’s own People’s Daily, which is meant to be taken as a sign that the central leadership disapproves of the phenomenon.
The Communist Party regularly refers to corruption as a deadly disease that must be eliminated. The contrasts that Internet users have shown between official luxury and run-down school buildings illustrates the general sense of unfairness on the part of the public, which Xi Jinping seeks to alleviate.
In Taiqian, Henan Province, in central China, a relatively poor county, millions of dollars have been spent on more than a dozen new government buildings, according to the state-run China News.
Close to the new compound is a high school, where 900 students are packed into a shabby building with broken windows boarded up with slats of wood: the feel is of a “refugee camp,” the report said.
Next to the official buildings are four eye-catching luxury villas, where the local Party leaders live; but 600 students nearby are squeezed into a two-floor dormitory, with 30 bunk beds crammed into small rooms.
Taiqian County’s general budget on government building construction exceeded 100 million yuan (US$16.4 million) in 2011, while another US$16.4 million has been spent on new buildings in the past two years, the report said.
“Have the cadres move into the school, and let the students study in the government buildings,” remarked one Internet user, a sentiment which others expressed their approval of.
It may not be immediately clear why local officials would be allowed to engage in conduct that has been declared undesirable by the top leader of the Communist Party.
The buildings in Pei and Taiqian counties were constructed before Xi Jinping gave the order, in July, that Party agencies cannot construct new buildings for the next five years, and that current constructions must cease. However, two months later a giant golden puffer fish statue, costing US$11.4 million, was unveiled in the city of Yangzhong, Jiangsu Province, indicating that Xi’s orders were ignored in that case.
Scholars have for a long time wrestled with the question of local versus central power, and the policy transmission mechanisms between Party Central and the cadre corps. Ideas like “fragmented authoritarianism” have been used to explain the apparent disconnect.
Heng He, the Chinese political commentator, set out a few reasons for the expensive building phenomenon.
“Firstly, officials are comfortable in luxurious buildings,” he noted. “Second, they’re a symbol of authority and rule. When the Party took over China, it built monuments to show its authority.”
He said that if high-level officials wanted to prevent lower-levels from such activities, they could. “It’s very simple—just don’t grant them the money.”
But partly as a consequence of the way the Chinese Communist Party has distributed power in order to push forward the economy, local officials are given wide discretion in the ways they create economic growth, as long as they bring in the GDP numbers, Heng He said.
“The Party’s economic model for China has two major areas: exports, and capital construction led by the government,” Heng He said. “Official buildings are one of the projects that are part of capital construction, which can boost GDP. And they’re considered a political achievement by local Party officials.”