By KEITH BRADSHER, HONG KONG (NY Times): China issued a directive on Tuesday banning the construction of government buildings for the next five years, the latest in a series of initiatives by President Xi Jinping to discourage corruption and foster frugality at a time of broad popular resentment against high-living bureaucrats
The central government authorities in Beijing have periodically tried to rein in the widely mocked penchant for grandiosity among local officials who order offices for themselves. A few of these projects have been slowed or stopped, including the nearly Pentagon-size headquarters started by a local government several years ago in an impoverished corner of Anhui Province in central China.
But until now, such isolated cases have done little to dissuade other local officials from their own pharaonic ambitions. The government of Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, attracted critical attention across China last fall after beginning construction of what was initially planned as Asia’s largest government building.
But Tuesday’s joint directive by China’s cabinet and the Chinese Communist Party went much further than prohibiting the construction of buildings: it also banned a long list of strategies that local leaders have used to circumvent previous, more informal efforts to discourage them.
Expanding or restoring existing government compounds in the name of street repairs or urban planning? Not allowed. A new training center or hotel? Also forbidden. Multiple offices for the same official? Prohibited.
Since taking over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November, Mr. Xi has tried to discourage lavish spending and gift giving by the party’s cadres and rein in opulent lifestyles among senior military officers. His campaign temporarily emptied many luxury restaurants over the winter, although there have been recent signs of a revival of behind-the-scenes extravagance.
The new directive showed clear signs of being a continuation of the anticorruption campaign, describing the ban as “important for building a clean government” and improving the ties between the party and the people.
Yet the prohibition on new buildings also comes as the government is starting to round up and prosecute activists who called on officials to disclose their wealth and the wealth of their families. In the most celebrated case, Xu Zhiyong, a prominent human rights activist, was charged last week with “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” — even though, according to his wife, he had already been under informal house arrest for three months.
Debt-fueled spending by local governments, partly for new buildings but also for roads, sewers, water systems and other projects, has been a growing worry in recent years for Beijing policy makers, as well as for economists and credit-rating agencies around the world. Most tallies of total local government debt in China tend to be in the vicinity of $2 trillion, equal to three months of China’s entire economic output, but some estimates are even higher.
Cheng Li, the China research director at the Brookings Institution, said the construction restrictions would do little to assuage broader worries about the Chinese economy.
“We should put into perspective that the problem of local government spending on buildings is not the most serious problem facing China’s economy,” Mr. Li said in a telephone interview from Beijing. “The property bubble, shadow banking and the state-owned enterprise monopolies are far more risky.”
A clear loophole in Tuesday’s directive is that it does little to rein in spending by enterprises partly or entirely owned by government entities. State-owned enterprises have been very active builders of hotels, providing free luxury suites to local officials for their meetings and all too often for assignations with mistresses, according to hotel industry executives.
Mr. Li predicted that Mr. Xi would seek greater austerity at state-owned enterprises next.
One persistent feature of Chinese political life, the retired official who continues to haunt his former agency or even the entire government by wielding influence from behind the scenes, will not be eradicated by the directive.
Former officials who left or retired are supposed to give up their offices, the directive said, but they are not required to do so immediately. These offices “should be returned in time,” a statement on a government Web site said.
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