Beijing's curbs on use of government vehicles raises hope for change

Hu Shuli says if proposed reforms are successfully implemented, it could result in higher-level changes being carried out in other sectors

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 2:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 3:46am

According to media reports this month, the government has unveiled new directives restricting the use of cars by central government officials.

Little has been achieved in the past 20 years, but these two documents have given hope that change is imminent. If implemented with the help of innovative measures, the initial objectives will be achieved, leading to higher-level reforms being carried out in other sectors in the future.

Some years ago, strict rules were imposed on the use of government vehicles according to officials' ranking and for private and public occasions. However, the use of government vehicles for private and public reasons has led to corruption and, subsequently, public outrage.

Government vehicle expenses are astronomical, accounting for about 60 per cent of central government expenses for government vehicles, overseas trips and business receptions. Local governments have spent even more.

For years, attempts have been made to reform the government vehicle system, with some proposals being shelved even before consultations were carried out.

However, this time things look different. First, this reform proposal aims to create a new model for official duty trips that is compliant with a modern system of governance. Second, detailed timetables and road maps have been set out for completion of the reform: the end of this year for the central government and the end of 2015 for local government agencies.

The role played by the central government should not be underestimated. Under the reform proposal, government vehicles can no longer be used for general official duties. Instead, officials will receive travel expenses. Thus, the unwritten rules of how vehicles are allotted among high-ranking officials will become written rules for travel subsidies. This is the most important part of the reform.

It is true that a carefully drafted reform proposal does not guarantee the reform will succeed, and it might face multiple challenges.

The part in the proposal that has drawn most attention is the official duty transport subsidy proposed for officials below the directorial level. There are public worries that officials might still receive subsidies while using government vehicles, thus turning the subsidy into a benefit. The reform proposal has clear requirements for how a subsidy is obtained, but how it is implemented remains to be seen.

Under the proposal, government units and departments are not allowed to use government vehicles for special reasons or unscheduled events. They are also not allowed to exchange, borrow or employ vehicles from subordinate units, other units or individuals. They are also not allowed to use vehicles from business units or individuals. The public have high hopes for the reform primarily because of the use of the terms "transparent regulations" and "open and transparent" in the two documents.

The next step is how public service units, state-run enterprises and state-run financial firms should carry out vehicle reform as this has the potential to become even more difficult and complicated than that of party and government institutions. If these enterprises and institutes fail to implement the reforms, the process could lose steam at the party and government organisation levels.

Some unexpected situations are bound to arise once the reform process is under way and must be dealt with quickly and effectively. For example, event and conference organisers normally arrange cars for officials who do not use government cars. It is not clear how the subsidy for government vehicles could be worked out reasonably and how travel costs for different geographical areas should be decided.

However, we know that the government vehicle reform forms part of the "eight rules" and "six bans" measures implemented by the central government to promote thrifty and honest behaviour, so the reform will not be abandoned simply because it is inconvenient.

The government's fight against corruption over the past year has seen the implementation of many new policies, which have led to confidence that the government vehicle reform will succeed. However, the problems with government vehicles and major government expenses stem from chronic "soft budget constraints", when politics, not economics, guides decision-making.

To resolve these problems, government functions must be changed, financial and taxation systems must be reformed, the mechanism for salaries and benefits of officials must be adjusted, and the system of selection of officials must be altered. Also, public rights, including the right to know, to participate, to express and monitor, must be protected.

Those responsible for implementing reforms should set their sights on carrying out even, comprehensive reforms.