Curbs on cadres' use of official cars raise plenty of questions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2011, 12:00am

Guangzhou's plans to restrict the private use of government cars from June have become a hot topic, with many in the city asking why the restrictions will only apply on weekends.

Authorities across the mainland have promised for years to restrict the personal use of official cars, and the city has cast the move, the first of its kind by a local government, as an example of its determination to curb spending on official vehicles following a call for action from President Hu Jintao. But its scheme has triggered only outrage - and more questions.

The city will install global positioning satellite equipment and identification devices in its 200,000 official cars. Su Zhijia, deputy secretary of the Communist Party's Guangzhou committee, said data collected by the hi-tech devices would allow the party's discipline inspection commission - its anti-graft watchdog - to monitor the use of official cars and punish civil servants who used them inappropriately.

The most controversial of the new rules will allow civil servants to use government vehicles for personal purposes on weekends, as long as such use is approved by their supervisors and they pay for their trip.

After a pilot project in one Guangzhou district last year, the rate was set between 1.50 yuan and 1.70 yuan (HK$1.77 to HK$2.10) per kilometre.

Su also promised that the anti-graft watchdog would regularly publish details of those who had used official cars for personal purposes and how they had used them.

But many residents and some delegates to last month's annual meetings of the Guangzhou People's Congress and the city branch of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference opposed the new rules, with some describing them as just a costly show.

They also expressed doubts about the authorities' ability to monitor the use of official cars efficiently given that supervision will be an internal matter, something that has proved to be notoriously unreliable on the mainland.

Yan Cuifang, Su's deputy, admitted late last month that, at least in the near future, meeting such a pledge would be 'a mission impossible'.

If that is true, it could be argued that it is better for local authorities to permit such abuses of power - with limits - rather than do nothing.

But Guangzhou's loose regulations could end up giving civil servants, long accustomed to using official cars for personal purposes, even more room to abuse the system.

According to the new rules, the city authorities are only considering banning the use of official cars for personal purposes on weekends. They remain silent on the use of departmental vehicles from Monday to Friday, even though hundreds of official cars can be seen outside prominent kindergartens and schools on weekday mornings and afternoons, dropping off and picking up officials' children.

Some of those at the wheel are the parents; others are the drivers of senior officials.

Perhaps the worst effect of the new rules is that they will further entrench the official division of Guangzhou's residents into two groups: the privileged few who can use official cars for personal purposes and the majority, who cannot. According to the new regulations, the former will be safe from criticism by the latter, widening the gap between those with and without power.

Since Guangzhou will be the first mainland city to implement such rules, it will not be a surprise to see other cities learn from its example.

Unfortunately, it is not a very good one.