China officials find ingenious ways to dodge austerity rules

China officials find ingenious ways to dodge austerity rules
Bottles of baijiu are displayed outside a store in Beijing on October 18, 2011.

With their hands tied by the long tentacles of austerity rules, some Chinese officials have been flexing their creative muscles to keep their luxurious lifestyles.

Banned from gambling in public? Organise a rural getaway to play mahjong away from the public eye. Forbidden from receiving red packets? Take gift cards, especially electronic ones with no physical trace. Cannot be seen drinking expensive liquor? Ask the restaurant to pour top-shelf baijiu Maotai into cheap baijiu brand bottles.

A cat-and-mouse game has ensued between enterprising cadres and the Communist Party's disciplinary commission, which has regularly issued new directives prohibiting certain flagrant behaviours since President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption and austerity drive began two years ago.

The authorities said this week that 8,157 officials have been disciplined for infringing the "spirit" of the campaign.

On Tuesday, the ancient Chinese game of mahjong came under fire as a commentary in party newspaper People's Daily accused officials of failing to stay away from the game despite the ban on gambling.

It called for a "resolute clampdown" on "little thrills" like organising getaways in the countryside for mahjong and poker sessions, or taking ostensible "study trips" to "fun places".

Other recent directives include not to use state cars for private purposes and to avoid "lavish funerals" for loved ones.

Some officials remain defiant. Forbidden from eating at expensive banquets, some have renovated their in-house canteens to create an ambience of a five-star restaurant, complete with private rooms and fine-dining chefs, reported local media.

Others engage in little tricks like hanging a normal licence plate over a state car when using the vehicle for private purposes.

President Xi's campaign has battered luxury sectors from hotels to liquor producers and high-fashion brands.

Even universities have not been spared: Earlier this month, Fudan University said that it has lost 10 per cent of its Executive Master of Business Administration students after government officials were banned from using public funds to take expensive training courses.

Last week, state news agency Xinhua reported that some cadres were flouting this ban by having instructors come to the office for in-house training sessions, and listing their fees under "miscellaneous office expenses".

Analysts say the austerity campaign is still in the early stages of eradicating a way of life for Chinese officials that is generations-old.

They add that the cat-and-mouse game will continue as long as official public sector pay remains at its current low level and officials are not subjected to checks and balances.

"This is the only way that all Chinese officials learn how to live, so you cannot change this at one blow," said anti-corruption expert Xiao Bin. "It's a journey.

"Managing corruption also needs a systemic look at the whole public sector," he said. "If they can live comfortable lives on official pay, for example, they would not do this."

Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam said that creative corruption in defiance of strict rules would continue "unless there are adequate checks and balances like requirements on officials to disclose their assets and supervision by an independent media and ordinary citizens".

This article was first published on Oct 30, 2014.
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