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Building ban begins to bite

An Baijie
Updated: Nov 25,2014 10:01 AM     China Daily

Fangxian county in Hubei province made headlines earlier this year because of its luxurious government buildings which cost more than 80 million yuan ($13 million), despite the county being listed as a poverty-stricken area that receives a subsidy from the central government.[Photo/China Daily]

The central government is cracking down on wasteful construction projects and ostentatious office complexes approved by a number of local authorities, as An Baijie reports.

A half-built office complex in East China’s Anhui province has become a hot potato for a local government in the two years since a clean-governance campaign was launched.

Construction of the 13-building complex was started by the government of Xiaoxian county in 2009, only to be halted in 2012 after Wu Baoliang, the county’s then-Party chief, was investigated on allegations of corruption.

Construction of a public square covering an area of 57,700 square meters, with a total investment of almost 23 million yuan ($3.7 million), was also halted.

The suspension of the project ignited public outrage in October after the Beijing Youth Daily revealed that the buildings have been left unattended and without maintenance for two years.

The square in front of the buildings has become a paradise for shepherds, and hundreds of sheep have been seen eating the weeds growing there—and some of the animals have even entered the empty offices, according to the report.

Zhang Desong, a Xiaoxian resident, said the local people had no access to information about the government buildings. “We don’t understand why this luxury project was approved,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

In response, the county government said it’s planning to attract commercial investment to finish the half-constructed buildings, and an official from the county’s publicity department, who declined to be named, said that if the government is unable to raise sufficient investment, the buildings will be auctioned.

The local authorities were forced to abandon the project because the construction of new government buildings has been strictly prohibited by the central government, the official said.

In early 2013, when he met with reporters shortly after being elected, Premier Li Keqiang said the central government would not approve the construction of any new government buildings. In March, Li pledged that investigations will be held into the construction of all new government buildings, and if they are deemed to be unnecessary or overtly extravagant, those responsible for giving the green light will be punished.

Later, at a scheduled meeting of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, Li said some officials had complained that they didn’t have sufficient funds to reduce poverty and help those in need, but at the same time, those same officials were decorating government buildings in a luxurious manner.

“If this problem can’t be resolved, the government will not gain the public’s trust,” Li warned.

The local government offices in Xiaoxian county in Anhui province have become a grazing area for sheep. The complex was abandoned two years ago after the then-county Party chief was arrested on corruption charges.[Photo/Xinhua]

Oversized offices

In May 2013, Industrial Economy News published a report claiming that the Taxation Bureau in Xiaogan city in Central China’s Hubei province had built a luxurious block in which the offices of the 100 or so officials measured an average 200 square meters.

Construction of luxurious offices has prompted public disquiet nationwide, and many local governments are stepping up their efforts to implement the central government’s ban.

In December, the government of the southwestern province of Sichuan announced that it had canceled 117 new projects to build government offices and that six officials had been punished, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency.

Xu Hui, a professor at the National Defense University in Beijing, said construction of a large number of military buildings was halted last year in accordance with the ban.

The management of military expenditure has been tightened since the “eight-point” frugality rules were issued in late 2012, he said. Under the rules, put forward by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, officials were ordered to get closer to the people by eradicating undesirable work methods, including excessive bureaucracy, hedonism, and extravagance.

Last year, 30,420 officials were punished by the anti-graft authorities for violating the new austerity rules, according to the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s top anti-graft watchdog.

In late June, the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office began soliciting public opinion over a draft regulation concerning government buildings. According to the draft, officials will be punished if they approve the construction of office buildings without first obtaining permission from higher-level government departments.

The draft also proposed that the budgets for government offices should be more tightly controlled, and the construction of large squares or parks around public buildings should be prohibited.

Ren Jianming, a professor of clean-governance research at Beihang University in Beijing, said the construction of luxurious government buildings reflects loopholes in the budgetary system.

He added that the National People’s Congress is unable to effectively supervise local government expenditure because government departments are obliged to seek approval from the body when they wish to spend public funds, but the NPC can only inspect expenditure reports once a year during its annual session. As a result, public funds have been misused, and the construction of luxurious buildings has led to a number of officials being investigated on suspicion of corrupt practices and allegations they have accepted bribes from the project contractors, he said.

Ren said the best way to solve the problem would be to ensure that information relating to government expenditure is available in a more transparent and detailed way so the public can understand where the funds are being spent and can supervise local spending programs.

LOCAL GOVERNMENTS TAKE ACTION

Local authorities are redoubling their efforts to implement the central government’s ban on the construction of new office buildings.

The government of Northwest China’s Shaanxi province canceled 37 new office-building projects last year, and local officials were forced to move out of 1,666 offices they had been occupying illegally.

In North China’s Shanxi province, 235 new building projects have been halted pending review, and 55 other projects have been canceled.

A review by the government of Hebei province in North China found that the offices of 3,291 local officials at and above county level exceeded the standard size—ranging from 6 square meters to 54 sq m depending on the official’s rank—by an average of 7.2 sq m.

Twelve senior provincial-level officials and 126 departmental-level officials in Northeast China’s Jilin province have been moved out of offices that exceed the standard size.

Xu Shousheng, Party secretary and director of the National People’s Congress in Central China’s Hunan province, has relinquished his office at the provincial congress building in an effort to play a lead role in implementing the building ban.

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