Last orders for lavish banquets
President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive has brought hopes of long-overdue reform in officialdom. Over the Lunar New Year holidays, some government departments and state-owned enterprises reportedly cancelled or scaled back on over-the-top celebrations. The hospitality for those attending the annual meeting of the state legislature and the top political advisory body in the capital last month also showed noticeable differences. These have been hailed as refreshing changes from a culture of lavish spending that upsets taxpayers who must pay the bills. The direction set by the new regime no doubt has full support of the public. But when it comes to the hierarchy, it has proved to be a challenge. As reported by this paper earlier, the extravagance has simply gone "underground" and, in some cases, become more extreme.
As the saying goes, when there is a policy from the top, there will be countermeasures from the bottom. This is apparently the strategy adopted by the municipal authorities in response to the crackdown. According to officials in at least four mainland regions, these days wining and dining occurs inside government compounds rather than under the public's gaze. Many government canteens are said to have been renovated into five-star restaurants and staffed by fine-dining chefs. It is not just a way to continue official entertainment in a safe environment. The spending on renovation can help deplete the entire annual budget and so avoid funding cuts in future.
The explanation is disturbing. Lavish banquets are said to be a must to get things done on the mainland. As long as the departments are not caught by the media or citizens, top leaders will not punish them, according to the official. This blatant disregard flies in the face of pledges by Premier Li Keqiang , who recently undertook to curb excess at all levels of government. Amid growing demands for accountability, Li rightly stressed the need of more transparency in budgeting and information for public scrutiny.
Reforming a huge bureaucracy is daunting. That Xi and Li have made anti-graft and mis-spending their priority is commendable. But instilling change takes more than rhetoric. Unaccompanied by concrete action, it will amount to nothing more than slogans. To demonstrate the new leaders' determination, there will be no better way to demonstrate their resolve than to order an immediate crackdown on the underground extravaganza.