China Briefing

Bureaucratic inertia stalls reform drive

Amid the crackdown on job 'perks', officials are sitting on their hands and refusing to approve projects, annoying leaders and businessmen

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 6:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 12:19pm

Bureaucrats on the mainland have long been known for inertia and clouding issues unless their palms are greased or you can call upon a network of contacts, or guanxi, when something needs to be done.

Their motto of muddling along can be best exemplified by a popular phrase which says that the more you do, the more mistakes you make: do nothing, be worldly and play safe.

Little more than 1½ years after President Xi Jinping came to power and unveiled an ambitious reform programme, government leaders can barely contain their exasperation about the passive bureaucratic resistance which has significantly stalled the reform initiative.

As written in this column a few weeks ago, Premier Li Keqiang reportedly pounded on the table during one State Council meeting and blasted the lethargy, lamenting that central government directives were ignored as soon as they were issued.

The People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, last week carried front-page commentaries three days in a row slamming bureaucratic inaction. The frequency and the sharp tone of these commentaries further suggested government leaders' growing frustration.

The big irony is that these commentaries, supported by anecdotal evidence from foreign and mainland businessmen, seem to suggest Xi's unprecedented anti-corruption campaign has prompted officials to further withdraw into procrastination and inertia. Xi, ably helped by anti-graft tsar Wang Qishan , has staked his leadership on fighting rampant official corruption to shore up the party's legitimacy, consolidate his power and rally the people around his reformist agenda.

The drive has netted hundreds of senior party and government officials. Authorities on Friday detained Wan Qingliang, the party chief of Guangzhou, and once considered a rising political star.

The central government has also released tough rules preventing officials from spending taxpayer money on banquets or sightseeing trips, using expensive cars for personal reasons or securing luxury offices.

While mainlanders have applauded the moves, officials cringed and withdrew into their shells.

According to a People's Daily commentary on Wednesday, as rules have been tightened some officials now feel government jobs are too boring. As they are banned from taking gifts and bribes, they have resorted to doing nothing. "These [developments] have caused a strong public outcry," the commentary said.

Indeed, as central and local government officials have considerable regulatory powers and powers of approval over a swathe of the economy, some mainland and foreign businessmen have already felt the side effects as officials have shown greater reticence in examining and sanctioning business deals.

Some even find it difficult to make appointments with officials, let alone asking them out for meals or drinks.

Some mainland businessmen have joked that even if they want to bribe officials to expedite the approval of deals, they will have to be careful as the officials could be detained any day, which could scupper projects. Worse, the businessmen themselves could be implicated in the subsequent investigation into officials.