Guangzhou district town governments in spending spree on receptions
A spending spree by Guangzhou district town cadres on official receptions makes a mockery of Beijing's pledge to rein in extravagance
Quite a few eyebrows were raised in Guangzhou this week at the news that three town-level governments - two in relatively poor rural areas - spent more than 4 million yuan (HK$5 million) a year between them on official receptions.
When Guangzhou's sub-district governments released details of their spending in either 2011 or 2012 late last month, the Aotou and Liangkou town governments, both in Conghua, and the Tonghe Street Committee in the city's Baiyun district topped the list. Liangkou spent 1.87 million yuan in 2011, followed by Aotou which spent 1.25 million last year. Tonghe Street spent 1.09 million in 2011.
As a Southern Metropolis Daily report pointed out, citing a figure provided by Hong Kong Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, the three grass-roots governments spent almost the same amount on official receptions - including banquets and gifts - as the Hong Kong government's protocol division for the 2011 financial year.
Han Zhipeng , a member of Guangzhou's Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, lamented on his microblog: "I want to know how taxpayers' money was eaten up."
A closer examination of the figures explains Han's outrage. Official documents show the Tonghe Street Committee has just 40 staff and that a nearby street committee of similar size spent just 93,000 yuan a year. "I'm really curious about how many people they received and what they ate," Han said.
Both Aotou and Liangkou are classified as "poverty-stricken towns" in Guangdong and eligible for aid each year. In 2011, Guangzhou's Huangpu district gave Liangkou 12 million yuan in development funds. But the 1.87 million yuan it spent on receptions meant it squandered at least 5,000 yuan a day.
The findings sparked dismay and ridicule on social media websites, with some internet users calling for more transparency over official reception expenses. One microblogger said: "I guess it must be quite exhausting and challenging to eat such expensive dinners every day."
The public scrutiny prompted a quick response from the three embarrassed governments, which republished significantly lower figures and blamed the earlier ones on statistical errors.
The Tonghe Street Committee now says it spent only 320,000 yuan on receptions in 2011, and that the original calculation mistakenly included overtime spending on sanitation work and the costs of maintaining social stability, security check-ups and lunch allowances. In a written response to Han, the committee said it had hired 450 staff, including social order and urban management assistants, sanitation workers and family planning staff, to serve the community's growing population, and that their cost had mistakenly been included under "official receptions".
Aotou lowered the amount it said it spent on official receptions to 385,000 yuan and Liangkou said it had spent only 362,000 yuan.
But such arbitrary changes to government expenditure figures prompted fresh questions from experts and the public, such as whether the central leadership's vow to cut government spending could be met if published statistics were not trustworthy in the first place.
Li Keqiang , in his first press conference as premier in March, pledged to rein in government spending on hospitality, vehicles and overseas trips. He said total expenditure on such items would not increase in the coming decade. The call was in line with Communist Party chief Xi Jinping's "eight rules" on official behaviour to cut government extravagance and regain public trust.
However, the poor transparency on display in Guangzhou clouds their promises of cleaner and more effective government.
As an opinion piece in Guangzhou's New Express Daily put it: "What's the point of releasing such messy figures if local governments can make changes of their own will? And how can the public scrutinise officials' behaviour if no detailed information regarding such government expenditure is available?"