Chinese parliamentary sessions 2014

Government must leave the tea lady out of the fight on graft

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 4:32am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 4:32am

A crackdown on wasteful spending and extravagance by officials meets the ultimate test of credibility when taxpayers are footing the bill for showpiece VIP occasions. It is then that the media and the public can be expected to keep an eye on whether officials practise what they preach. One such event looms this week with the National People's Congress beginning in Beijing tomorrow. The NPC rolled out 15 guidelines last year to reduce spending that followed the "eight rules" against extravagance promoted by President Xi Jinping. They included bans on souvenirs, reception ceremonies and gourmet meals.

A source tells us they were followed by more guidelines this year to control costs, streamline bureaucracy, cut waste and curb extravagance during NPC sessions.

That all sounds like an undiscriminating blanket of frugality. It is sad to report that the highest-profile casualty so far, at least at the Beijing International Hotel which will host some meetings, is a venerable institution of public and private-sector bureaucracy - the tea lady. Instead of serving tea to the delegates, hotel staff have been asked by the authorities to distribute bottled water marked with delegates' names and not to give them a second bottle unless they have finished the first.

Other officials and staff at congress hotels said they had not received instructions on how to serve bottled water. Perhaps they will be inspired to come up with their own attention-getting measures in order to be seen to comply with the guidelines. It worked for the Beijing International Hotel. One of the top taglines on Sina Weibo last week was: "Real-name registration system for bottled water."

The new frugality is symbolic and symbolism is fine. There is no argument that Xi has done much to focus official minds on reining in waste and extravagance. But hopefully the banishment of the humble tea lady is temporary - a precursor to more concrete action to address reckless spending and corruption by powerful, vested interest groups.