PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2012, 5:31am

Chinese officials blasted for drinking too much at functions

Report about officials in hard-up town guzzling 50 litres of liquor a month triggers public furore over money spent on official bashes


Ivan Zhai is the Social Media Editor at the South China Morning Post. Prior to his current position, Ivan spent 10 years working for the Guangzhou-based 21st Century World Herald and in the Post's Guangzhou bureau, covering Chinese politics, macroeconomics and online communities. In 2008, Ivan won an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship. He shares his findings and thoughts on digital media, cognitive neuroscience and China on Twitter and Chinese microblogs as @ivanzhai.

Mainland officials are spectacularly generous hosts, even though - or maybe because - the billions of yuan they splash out every year on food and drink while entertaining each other is not their own.

But they can also be a thirsty bunch, and local officials sometimes have to come up with innovative ways to make their entertainment budget go further.

The officials of Baishun, a small town in mountainous northern Guangdong, took matters into their own hands and decided to make their own booze.

The Guangzhou-based Southern Agricultural News reported late last month that the cash-strapped township government had stopped buying baijiu (white liquor) from the shops early this year and was now serving home-made hooch.

It said the township's official guests, many from other government departments, could guzzle their way through 50 litres of liquor a month.

"When your bosses are here, you have to drink with them," one township official told the newspaper.

The report triggered a public outcry online, with many people criticising the enormous amount of money spent on official hospitality each year.

When reporters from the state-run Xinhua news agency visited Baishun to do a follow-up story, Huang Shucai , a senior official with the local Communist Party committee who is responsible for hospitality, denied that they went through 50 litres of grog a month, but did admit that they drank a lot.

"It was exaggerated," he said. "Generally we drink 35 to 40 litres of white liquor a month."

An anonymous official "familiar with the issue", told Xinhua that the township government's annual hospitality budget was about 50,000 yuan (HK$61,587) - not enough to be able to afford enough shop-bought liquor, which costs at least 60 yuan a bottle.

Township head Tan Fuzhi told Xinhua that the government's annual revenue was 600,000 yuan but its operating costs were 1.6 million yuan a year. That means its annual spending on entertaining officials is equivalent to more than 8 per cent of its annual revenue.

The central government has long been aware of the problem, but it seems powerless to do anything about it, with lack of proper supervision the key problem.

Government agencies only started publishing reports about their entertainment expenditure last year.

A report in July said the State Administration of Taxation had spent the most among 98 state-level government agencies in the past year. Its hospitality budget was more than 650 million yuan and it spent another 1.38 billion yuan or so on officials' overseas trips and vehicles.

Wasteful as it may seem, there are two reasons why mainland officials are unlikely to rein in their appetites and their entertainment expenses.

Firstly, the top leaders are not ready to be role models for their subordinates. A recent report in The New York Times alleging that the family of Premier Wen Jiabao had accumulated a vast fortune during his time in office once again prompted experts and the media to urge top leaders to declare their assets and those of their families. Secondly, local officials in Baishun and across the mainland are not only spending public money for entertainment. They're also making an investment that could pay off in terms of their career prospects.

For low-level officials, treating their bosses well is always the top priority, because their hospitality can be the key factor when they are considered for promotion.

Tan told Xinhua that one of his major concerns after the story about the township's struggles with its booze budget made headlines nationwide was that his superiors might visit less often to avoiding putting more strain on local finances.

If it was the case, he said, backwards Baishun might get less support from above.

Actually, a decrease in visits would give local officials like Tan fewer chances to establish personal connections with more powerful officials. And it's that power that controls his destiny. In that light, the cost - in terms of liver damage or the drain on the public purse - seems a small price to pay.


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