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Scientific ambitions thwarted by missing finances
One of the many things Zhu Rongji did to impress the audience at his debut press conference as premier in March last year was to promise to 'revitalise the country with science and education'.
Mr Zhu drove home his point by taking up the leadership of the new elite Central Group on Science and Education Work. He said 'repetitive construction projects had eaten up money' originally set for reforms.
At least he knew where the money had gone.
Not to the Datong Science Commission, in Shanxi province, which has still to learn the whereabouts of money promised to its science and technology programmes from 1990 to 1998.
A report in the Beijing-based Guangming Daily said less than 50,000 yuan (HK$46,000) of the officially earmarked 23.7 million yuan had actually gone to the so-called 'three categories of expenses' - three separate funds set up to help scientists turn their research into commercial products.
One top municipal official excused the shortfall by saying Datong was 'very different'. Another said: 'We don't have a clear-cut understanding and thus have mixed the funds with other programmes.' After extensive interviews with the Datong authorities, the paper reported that 'no one can say for sure where the money has actually gone'.
In 1993, the NPC passed the Law on the Progress of Science and Technology, forbidding individuals from 'misappropriating, embezzling or withholding any state funds designated for science and technology'.
Violators would be asked to 'return the funds within the period set by their superior work units. In serious cases, an administrative penalty would be imposed on the culprits'.
But the law did not deter those in the Datong administration, who continued to embezzle the state funds until provincial Science Commission officials unearthed the case last June. The culprits had been knowingly breaking the law on embezzlement for more than five years.
'It's not an issue of ignorance,' said the paper. 'It concerns a more serious mentality of 'I am the No 1 authority under Heaven and I don't care whether it's lawful or not'.' The case was exposed when the commission asked all administrative regions in Shanxi, from county level upwards, to report on the progress of appropriations for science programmes.
Datong's claim of an investment of three million yuan for 1998 backfired. Instead, it prompted provincial officials to check on such an enormous input during difficult economic times.
The three million yuan turned out to be a projected figure. The actual appropriation for the science programme was 530,000 yuan, of which only 30,000 yuan went to the science research. The rest went towards the building of a hotel.
On further investigation, the officials discovered even more hair-raising figures.
For seven years, up to the end of 1996, scientists in Datong received no more than 20,000 yuan from the Government for research. The rest simply disappeared.
A Datong official told the paper: 'If everything was done according to the state laws, it would be impossible to do anything in the grassroots at all.' Datong officials promised to return 200,000 yuan for the science programme by the end of last year.
But up to the end of February, 'the money promised was like the reflection of the moon shining on the water', the paper said.
Provincial commission chief Wen Zexian said the problem was the result of a lack of legal awareness among officials.
'They could use the funds as they please,' he said. 'It's totally up to them to decide whether or not, or how much to give to the science programmes.' Such practice was not limited to Datong, but was prevalent in other counties and cities as well, said Mr Wen.
'We should dare to pick up the legal weapon against this sort of illegal practice,' he said.
Corrective measures to plug the loopholes have since been announced by the Shanxi Government. But the question remains - where is the missing money? Unless an answer is provided, Premier Zhu's promise could prove a false one.