Greed rules, and the people are made to pay

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am

Mainland authorities are fond of being called 'the people's government', and their most famous motto is to 'serve the people'. But these days, their chief mission appears to be to 'charge the people'.

'Vying with the people for profit' has become a popular phrase among cynical mainlanders in recent years to describe how central and local government departments forgo their primary roles as providers of public services and abuse their power to seize or create opportunities to fleece ordinary, hapless mainlanders.

Examples abound. Take property development. Local authorities collude with developers to force farmers to sell their land cheaply and then flog the finished residential or office buildings at high prices, artificially boosting real estate prices beyond the reach of many people.

Many central and local government departments function more like business groups representing certain interests except that they control both the power and resources.

Mainland analysts have long argued that 'the government vying with the people for profit' is one of the main reasons that tens of thousands of riots and protests occur.

There are examples everywhere of government departments abusing their power to profit at the expense of the people they are meant to serve. Take public parks. In Hong Kong, all the parks are free and well maintained by the government. In London, even the famous downtown parks, such as Hyde Park, are free.

But in the People's Republic, people have to pay, sometimes exorbitantly, to get into major public parks. And if that were not enough, authorities try to raise the prices significantly during public holidays.

Xinhua issued an investigative report just before the National Day holiday, saying that many renowned scenic spots raised admission prices by as much as 140 per cent to capitalise on the influx of tourists. A more modest example, the famed Stone Forest in Yunnan , raised its price from 140 yuan (HK$160) to 200 yuan, or 43 per cent.

Their standard argument is that they need the additional money for maintenance but the Xinhua report laid bare their lies. The operator of the famed Mount Huang in Anhui, known for its scenery and sunrises, earmarks about 10 per cent of ticket sales revenue for park-related maintenance. Yunnan's Stone Forest raked in nearly 300 million yuan in ticket sales last year but only 30 million yuan was spent on park maintenance. God knows how and where the rest of the money was spent.

As mainlanders celebrated the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, the authorities should have had the decency to open all parks and museums for free and allow the people to enjoy themselves, at least during the holidays.

Another example is expressways. Every time the mainland's economy slows, the central government's stimulus package usually includes trillions in government spending to build expressways, and now the mainland boasts the world's second-largest expressway system, to only the United States. But whereas most interstate highways are free in the United States, mainlanders pay tolls to use theirs. According to the state media reports, there are 140,000 kilometres of toll roads in the world, and China has 100,000 kilometres of them.

Officials have argued that unlike the freeways in the United States built largely with taxpayers' money, the government contributes only about 20 per cent of the total cost of China's expressways, with the bulk coming from bank loans.

That may be true, but the greed of the state-owned operators of expressways knows no bounds. Take Beijing's Airport Expressway, one of the mainland's first expressways, which was built with German technology. The road opened in 1993 after a total investment of 1.16 billion yuan, of which 765 million yuan was in bank loans. In 1997, the municipal government extended the fee-collection duration for another 30 years and injected the toll road into the Hong Kong-listed Beijing Enterprises Holdings. By 2005, the operator had collected 3.2 billion yuan in fees, three times its initial investment, and is expected to rake in 9 billion yuan by 2027.

Under mounting pressure from motorists and state media, the expressway's operator said it had begun charging motorists only one way from the beginning of this month.

In February, the National Audit Administration released a report saying that Beijing's Airport Expressway is one of many expressways nationwide that are used by the local authorities as cash cows.

Such a blatant abuse of public services for profit at the expense of taxpayers is just wrong - in any country and particularly the People's Republic.