Official cars drive through all attempts to curtail their use

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 November, 2010, 12:00am

Among mainland officials consuming taxpayers' money every year, their mouths and buttocks appear to have consumed the most - more than 600 billion yuan (HK$697.49 billion) in total.

Officials' lavish habit of wining and dining at public expense is well known, despite the public's outrage. What is less known is that they reportedly spend more than 300 billion yuan each year on purchasing and maintaining luxury vehicles to be driven in comfort and style.

The total spending of 600 billion yuan on the two signs of official corruption and profligacy accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the mainland's fiscal revenues for last year, and nearly two-thirds of the total government spending on education.

However, officials are under increasing public pressure to give up the driving privilege, not least because of increasingly gridlocked traffic in mainland cities.

But just like the central government's repeated but futile campaigns to curb officials' gourmet tastes, repeated efforts to curb the use of government vehicles have been largely unsuccessful.

For mainland officials, government vehicles are not only used for convenience and comfort but also as signs of power. Once an official is promoted, his first act is most likely to switch to a better and more expensive car.

To the mainland's hapless drivers plying the increasingly gridlocked roads in major cities, there is nothing that annoys them more than the sight of omnipresent black Audi sedans blaring horns to force others to make way or driving on the emergency lanes or turning where signs forbidding turns are clearly exhibited.

Overseas visitors may be impressed by soaring private vehicle ownership, but this phenomenon started only in the past decade. Since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the mainland's car industry had been largely driven by government demand for most of the past 60 years.

Like many foreign governments, buying domestic has been the first and foremost requirement for government procurement. Since many models of foreign luxury cars are now assembled on the mainland, they are conveniently counted as domestic cars, enabling bureaucrats to have a wide range of options to choose from: German luxury sedans from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, or the American Buick. The domestic compact Geely is on the list but is rarely in government fleets.

Indeed, the history of the official cars offers an interesting glimpse into the development of the mainland's vehicle industry.

These days, black Audi sedans may be the most popular among the mainland officials, including the top leaders, miles ahead of BMW and Benz in terms of sales, largely because Volkswagen was the first overseas carmaker willing to transfer its technology to the mainland - back in 1988 when the first batch of Audi 100s was assembled and sold entirely to the government.

But in the early years of the People's Republic, to be driven in any kind of passenger vehicle denoted power and status. Mao Zedong was first driven into Beijing in an open-top American military jeep. Until the early 1960s when the mainland assembled the famous Red Flag limousines, Mao and a small number of top leaders rode in Soviet-made or Polish-made passenger sedans. For middle-ranking and lower-ranking officials, the only car available was the US-style military jeep made in Beijing.

As soon as the mainland opened its doors to the outside world in the late 1970s, officials immediately switched cars. While the top leaders were driven in Mercedes, Lincolns, and Cadillacs, lower-ranking officials favoured Toyota Crown or Nissan Bluebird sedans. In 1984 alone, the mainland reportedly imported 200,000 passenger cars and vans, costing a total of US$2 billion, equivalent to one fourth of the mainland's foreign exchange reserves for the year.

In 1994, the government tried to cut runaway spending on official cars by ruling that only deputy ministers or above could have their own chauffeur-driven limos, but it was too late.

Government purchases of cars soared to 80 billion yuan in 2008, compared to 7 billion yuan in 2001.

Since 2006, the government has tried to reduce the use of government vehicles by giving monthly allowances of several thousand yuan to officials so that they can buy their own cars or take public transport.

The move has understandably failed as many officials simply pocket the money but continue to be driven in government vehicles.