On the mainland, all crooked politics is local

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 August, 2009, 12:00am


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There can be no more damning verdict on the mainland's officials than the fact that they are regarded by the public as less trustworthy than sex workers. But that was the conclusion of a new survey conducted by the magazine Xiaokang.

Respondents to the poll placed prostitutes third on the list of the five most trusted groups of people on the mainland, with farmers and religious workers above them, and soldiers and students in the fourth and fifth.

Anyone who has been tracking the way the public has lost faith in those who rule, thanks to a succession of well-publicised scandals across the country, will not be surprised that officials are considered untrustworthy. But they might well be shocked that hookers, who don't exist officially on the mainland, have risen to such an exalted position. Nor are religious figures exactly prominent in the public eye, given the authorities' continued monitoring of all spiritual groups.

Siding with the underdog, though, has been one of the trends of 2009, whether it's a waitress who stabs an official trying to rape her, or the victims of companies who pump deadly chemicals into the environment in pursuance of profit. So, given the rapacious reputation of property developers, it was entirely predictable that the Xiaokang survey ranked real estate entrepreneurs as the least trustworthy group.

But it isn't just those involved in the business of government - and it is, more than ever, an industry - who ranked low in the survey. Also under attack were Beijing's statistics, with more than 90 per cent of the respondents saying they no longer believed the government's official figures. That's a jump of more than 10 per cent from 2007, when the survey was last conducted.

If the data put out by Beijing is now considered to be false, then the government's credibility is truly on the line. Again, though, it is hard to fault the public's sense that something is not right. After all, many international banks and institutions treat Beijing's figures with the utmost suspicion, because they can be challenged so easily, or are rigged so that they appear more palatable.

In the past couple of weeks alone, the mainland's provinces claimed that their combined gross domestic product was 15.38 trillion yuan (HK$17.44 trillion). But the National Bureau of Statistics says it is 13.99 trillion yuan. Then there is the ongoing massaging of the unemployment statistics, which don't include migrant workers, a mere 200 million-odd people, or the new graduates placed in fictitious jobs by their universities, seemingly with the approval of the Ministry of Education.

Fake figures and dodgy officialdom go hand in hand, though, because of Beijing's insistence that local cadres be judged primarily on the economic performance of the areas they work in. With their promotion prospects hinging on the output of their district, county or province, it is no wonder that officials turn a blind eye towards profitable but polluting industries, or hand in GDP figures that are so at odds with those collated by the central government.

Above all, local officials have little incentive to pay more than lip service to the concerns of their constituents, because they are simply waiting for their next posting. And that is why people are so disillusioned with those in power. The disconnect between local government and the public in some rural areas is now such that one village in Shandong recently posted an online advert for a 'clean' official to take charge of them.

It's one of the many ironies of mainland governance that distrust of local officialdom is endemic, but the central leadership remains largely popular. A cynic might say that is convenient, because it enables Beijing to use minor cadres as scapegoats for problems that are ultimately of its own making. But with so many people already doubting the government's figures, the men in Zhongnanhai may not be so lucky the next time Xiaokang conducts a survey.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist