Taxpayers finally get to see where the money goes
Three weeks after an end-of-June deadline set by Premier Wen Jiabao, more than half of the 98 central government agencies have finally released this year's budgets for overseas travel, official cars and banquets, plus details of their actual spending last year.
These three elements of public spending are known as 'san gong spending' and have become the segment of government expenditure which most concerns the mainland.
Some big departments, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of State Security, are among those yet to indicate when they will divulge details of their spending on foreign travel, cars and banquets.
That is despite an order issued by a State Council executive meeting chaired by Wen back on March 23 that all government agencies release their figures to the public. The meeting also demanded further reductions in san gong spending, after 'large budget cuts' in 2009 and 2010.
Since then, Wen has repeatedly told government agencies to reveal spending on banquets, travel and cars.
By July 8, just 12 government agencies had published their reports. Only the Ministry of Science and Technology, headed by a non-communist minister, beat the deadline, filing its report on April 14.
The lingering reluctance of some government agencies to comply with the State Council order has drawn fire from state media. An editorial in Caijing magazine demanded that recalcitrant agencies be brought to trial.
As more and more figures are disclosed, the calls for action against ministries may not go away; the sums serve to raise suspicions about whether government agencies have been squandering public funds.
For instance, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, presumably staffed by research scientists and not gourmands and wine aficionados, spent 100 million yuan (HK$121 million) on banquets last year.
In total, the academy spent 287 million yuan on san gong spending.
The Ministry of Agriculture spent 236.5 million yuan, the Ministry of Water Resources 120 million yuan, and the National Bureau of Statistics 116 million yuan.
The Ministry of Transport spent some 105 million yuan, the Civil Aviation Administration of China 93 million yuan, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television 87 million yuan, the State Administration of Work Safety 66 million yuan, and the China Earthquake Administration 64 million yuan.
The other ministries known to have spent more than 40 million yuan on san gong are: the Ministry of Commerce with 62 million yuan, Xinhua News Agency with 55 million yuan, the Ministry of Health with 43 million yuan, and the Ministry of Finance with 42 million yuan.
The expenditure on san gong spending by the 3,567 agencies of the local and central tax authorities reached 2.2 billion yuan, while customs, together with all the border checkpoints, spent 500 million yuan.
Contrary to Wen's call for budget cuts, most of the published spending details show increased budgets for this year.
Ironically, one of the largest budget increases, of some 14 per cent, came from the very agency that guards the government coffers - the Ministry of Finance added more than 5.8 million yuan to its san gong spending budget.
It is the Finance Ministry's role to approve other departments' spending plans.
The Ministry of Agriculture reported spending nearly 36.6 million yuan on official banquets as part of its 236 million yuan san gong bill, but also disclosed the enormous number of people on its payroll - 170,000, including 86,000 retirees. That made its san gong spending roughly 2,800 yuan per worker last year - in the acceptable range according to Ye Qing, a National People's Congress deputy who campaigns to cut san gong spending
The Chinese Academy of Sciences is also a large operation, he pointed out, with many regional branches. So on a per-head basis, its san gong spending may not be as high as it appears.
The poverty alleviation office, on the other hand, was criticised for its san gong spending last year, although it only amounted to 1.45 million yuan. On a per-head basis, however, its 134 staff each spent an average of 10,816 yuan on banquets, travelling and cars.
Without more details and figures on how many employees and official cars they actually have, Ye said government departments did not reveal much about themselves by giving out just one or two round figures.
One government car, for example, could account for a lot of taxpayers' money - depending on the car, fuel costs and whether it was chauffeur-driven. A chauffer's salary could range from 30,000 to 50,000 yuan a year, and that expenditure, by definition, was part of staff salary costs, not part of the san gong spending.
A commentary on the financial news portal Hexun.com argued that to more effectively control government expenditure, a more scientific approach was required, taking into account an agency's staff numbers and functions.
Commenting on the significance of the disclosure of san gong spending, Professor Sun Yudong, a public finance expert at Renmin University, said: 'In the past couple of years, government revenue has been growing faster than the economy.
'That has led many of us to ask, with increasing concern, whether the government has cut itself an excessively large slice of the economy that should have been shared by citizens instead.'
With household incomes growing more slowly than the economy, and growing awareness of taxpayers' rights, Sun said more mainlanders are asking: 'Where is the government spending my money, and how?'
Pointing out that figures on san gong spending did not exist before 2009, Sun said he hoped they would now be published every year, along with supporting details.
Professor Zeng Kanghua, from the Central University of Finance and Economics, also welcomed the disclosures as a significant beginning - 'despite the bureaucratic resistance and all the possible confusion in accounting methods'.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou