Shaming the smiles of officials, and the watches on their wrists

A careless grin and apparent lack of concern at a scene of tragedy sparks nationwide fury

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2012, 4:48am

It seems like every week brings another reason for mainland officials to turn their smiles into frowns. Now cadres are learning that one careless grin in public, say, while surveying a disaster scene, can bring a lot of grief.

Yang Dacai, the portly chief of the Shaanxi Provincial Work Safety Administration, was spotted in the background of a Xinhua photograph of a fatal bus-truck collision last Sunday wearing a broad smile.

The photo went viral and Yang was savagely attacked for his apparent lack of concern over the deaths of 36 bus passengers. Internet users mockingly dubbed him "the smiling official".

State media quickly joined the fray. "We don't understand how officials could laugh after a disaster like this. We are disgusted by shameless smiles," the Qianjiang Evening News said. "What was he laughing at? Ordinary people were dead. If you don't want to cry, fine, but please at least show some respect for the dead."

Some, such as novelist Qiu Xiaogang, cautioned against drawing a conclusion from a single image. But it was too late. More photographs of Yang were soon in circulation, these showing the supposedly modestly paid official wearing at least five expensive watches on different occasions.

Again, the media jumped on board. The Southern Metropolis Daily had appraisers check out the timepieces. They estimated the watches were worth a total of 200,000 yuan (HK$244,300), a hefty sum for someone earning a few thousand yuan a month.

Yang became the "watch-wearing brother", as well as the smiling official, not to mention the object of increasing scorn in the official media.

An article titled "Officials, please stay away from luxuries" in the Chinese version of the Global Times quoted an expert warning that the pursuit of conspicuous wealth could "damage the reputation and the credibility of the ruling power".

Even Xinhua chimed in with an editorial that compared Yang's grin to the mysterious smile worn by Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

"There are so many questions that need to be asked about his smile," the editorial said. "Why does he have so many watches? What are the prices of those watches? Where did he get those watches?"

Another editorial by the Modern Express of Jiangsu noted that other officials had escaped punishment despite being caught laughing while people suffered. "They are all doing well after their smiles and didn't even bother with public apologies," the paper said. "This could also explain why Mr Yang was smiling."

Yang at least attempted to offer an explanation by hosting an hour-long internet chat on Sina Weibo, an extraordinary move considering how mainland officials usually dismiss such controversies - if they respond at all.

Maybe he "got a little too relaxed" at the crash scene, he said, adding he bought five watches over 10 years "using my own legal income" and had already reported the purchases to disciplinary authorities.

Bravo, said Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, noting on his own weibo that Yang was "the first widely criticised official who did a live chat". Well done, said an unnamed Shanghai official who called the public relations move "an important step for officials".

"At least now they want to face the challenges," the official said, according to the China Business News.

However, within hours of Yang's chat, internet users discovered more photos of Yang, suggesting that he could have as many as 10 luxury watches.

The news portal Tencent published an editorial on Thursday urging people to keep the pressure on wayward officials and shame the smiles off their faces - and the watches from their wrists.

"In China, the ordinary people should be more cruel," it said. "If officials no long dare to wear luxury watches, it means we are caging their power."