Shaming of splurging official reported in party mouthpiece

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 6:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

Zhang Aihua, the middle-aged director of an industrial park in eastern China, has become a token fall guy for the central government’s austerity drive, with the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily reporting this week that he was forced to kowtow to villagers at a sumptuous banquet.

The director of the Binjiang Industrial Park in Taizhou, Jiangsu, was treating visiting officials to a banquet dinner in the industrial park’s reception building on Friday night when a mob of villagers stormed the building.

Within hours, photos of the hapless Zhang kowtowing three times on the dining table and pleading with the enraged crowd through a white loudhailer spread on microblogs.

"“Please let me go,” he was quoted as saying in earlier reports. “I was born in the countryside too! I admit my mistakes!”

The People’s Daily seemed to endorse the villagers’ action when it published a story on Tuesday headlined “How it is possible to evade the eight rules”, referring to austerity guidelines set out by party general secretary Xi Jinping at a Politburo meeting on December 4.

Later that month, Xinhua released the menu – “four dishes and a soup” – for a lunch Xi had during an inspection tour in Hebei. The phrase quickly turned into a catchphrase for the austerity campaign.

Zhang’s lavish dinner also contrasted sharply with the bowl of plain rice congee and pickles that Premier Li Keqiang was photographed eating in a tent in Sichuna during a inspection of quake relief efforts. That photograph was run by state media outlets on Sunday.

Zhang’s dinner cost 5,430 yuan (HK$6,800), Xinhua said. While considered a relatively low figure for a banquet, its cost amounted to almost half the average annual income of a local rural resident, which stood at 12,500 yuan last year.

The industrial park said later that Zhang hosted some 20 officials from Hebei, who had travelled to Taizhou to discuss business deals. It said Zhang had only addressed the crowd because he wanted to maintain order.

On Monday, Taizhou’s city government said in a microblog post that Zhang had been dismissed from his job for “laxly enforcing regulations”.

The villagers stormed the building amid a dispute over compensation for their forced relocation, which was handled by Zhang. At the end of last month, some 1,200 villagers were told they would have to move to make way for a chemical plant. They demanded higher compensation for their land, news reports said.

“It is good populist politics,” said Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. “We know that the real corruption is not about this. It is in the businesses and the state-owned enterprises and the way that they are run by tiny groups that make so much money.”

Brown said endorsing such protests could backfire. “If they carry on allowing attacks on local officials, this might become a bit too popular,” he said. “It puts local officials in an even more vulnerable position.”