A nod and a wink can get officials far

Central government leaders may have the best intentions when they hold inspection tours, but everyone involved knows it's just for show

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 5:16am

As the new leadership under President Xi Jinping steps up its anti-corruption campaign, hardly a week goes by without the announcement of a senior central or local government official being detained or jailed on corruption charges.

So it came as little surprise when anti-graft investigators announced in June that Ni Fake, who was serving as deputy governor of Anhui province, had been placed under investigation for "serious violations of discipline", a euphemism for corruption.

The mainland media played up Ni's story not because of the amount of bribery involved but because of his ties to a well-known scandal in which an elaborate show was staged to deceive the then premier Zhu Rongji 15 years ago.

In 1998, shortly after taking over as premier, Zhu went to inspect grain procurement in Nanling county under Wuhu in Anhui, as part of his first trip outside Beijing. At the time, the county was reluctant to procure and store rice because of the then misguided central government policy that required local officials to buy rice from farmers at a pre-set price.

As the government rate was higher than the market one, local authorities were required to make up the difference, which meant the more they bought, the more subsidies they needed to provide, making it difficult for them to pay the salaries of all their employees.

Upon learning of Zhu's intention to inspect one particular granary that was empty, Nanling officials decided to transfer more than 1,000 tonnes of rice from other counties, organising about 200 people to work four days and nights to ensure the granary was brimming with rice.

Ni, at the time a deputy Wuhu mayor in charge of agriculture, reportedly led a team of officials to make sure the granary could pass inspection. As scheduled, Zhu went to the granary and was mightily pleased to see workers busy buying and storing rice in a show specifically staged for him.

Encouraged by what he saw and only days after the trip, Zhu issued new regulations nationwide to strengthen the government's dominant role as the buyer of rice and grain, which seriously delayed necessary reforms to advance agricultural production.

According to state media, Zhu exploded in anger when he learned of the scandal, which was later made public in a national television investigative report, sending shockwaves across the mainland.

While it remains unclear who gave the order to stage the elaborate show for Zhu, Ni was seen as a key player.

Despite Zhu's anger and the attention the scandal garnered, Ni's career seemed to be little affected and his star rose.

Little has changed in 15 years in regards to the chicanery involved when higher-ranking officials take inspection trips. The leaders in Beijing often undertake such tours to other parts of the country to gather first-hand information in order to help them formulate national policies. But they can only see the places and things the local officials want them to see.

Of course, the leaders know about the tricks because they probably did them themselves before they were promoted, and most of the time, the leaders have no choice but to play along.

More interestingly, local officials who get caught in the duplicity rarely receive harsh punishment.

Indeed, many outsiders have long believed that because of the mainland's authoritarian regime, central government leaders exercise absolute power over local officials.

But the reality is much more complicated. Partly because of the finance and tax system and party because of vested interests, local officials often feign compliance with the central government policies. In reality, they do whatever they believe is good to advance the interests of themselves as well as the town or city they govern.

That explains why top leaders often complain their directives hardly make it outside the Zhongnanhai compound where they work. Even for a powerful official like the country's premier, it was not easy to sack an official who was caught telling a blatant lie. As a sign of the mainland's massive bureaucracy, the promotions or sackings of officials are decided by the Communist Party's Organisation Department, which is outside the purview of the government.

On national television, leaders on inspection trips are often seen as being surrounded by local officials appearing to hang on their superiors' every word and vowing to carry out the central government policies. Much of it is just for show.