Jun 12

Can those “putting it on the tab” go on a diet?

Written by Buxi on Thursday, June 12th, 2008 at 11:44 pm
Filed under:News | Tags:
Add comments

For average Chinese, one of the most common complaints about the Chinese government is the pervasive spread of “gray income” corruption in many government departments. At all levels of government, officials have opportunity to benefit themselves using public taxpayer money. Many officials eat and drink outrageously with public funds. Some officials are given the right to a government car plus driver, and use them regularly to run personal errands.

Because these stories surround us every day, it’s a constant reminder of special privileges for officials, and increasingly a source of real public anger. The most recent example comes from Holhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. This story has drawn attention in the state press, which probably implies some sort of punishment will be coming to the officials involved.

This column (文章)comes from Rednet:

—————– begin translation —————-

In this time of national difficulty, can the “right to sign a tab” go on a diet?

On the night of June 3rd, a reporter received a telephone call. Officials from the Holhot Environmental Protection bureau were acting like tyrants at a local restaurant; they refused to pay after a meal, and even assaulted people. After the reporter got to the scene, the receipts showed the meal was ordered by the office chairman Mrs. Guo; 34 people consumed 6815 RMB. Those who used force were caught on surveillance camera.

Some netizens joked: if there was a government official that had actually paid cash for a meal of 6815 RMB, that would be a true news story. According to restaurant management, after these people finished eating, they refused to pay. Instead, they insisted on putting it on a tab. This suggests two problems: 1) this restaurant and the environmental protection bureau didn’t have a tab/billing relationship, and a signature is simply not good currency; 2) the fact that these officials were so exaggerated in their tyrannical response suggests that signing the tab is the most logical thing in the world; how can there be a restaurant that doesn’t let them pay on the tab, this is outrageous enough to fight over. Behind the conflict lies something called the “right to sign a tab” (“签单权”).

Reportedly, after officials reach a certain level in rank, they gain the “right to sign a tab”. This right basically means that within certain limits, the official can sign receipts offered by hotels and restaurants, and accounting will provide compensation and pay these debts. Different ranks have different limits on their “right to sign a tab”. In an economically developed area, even small officials have a shocking annual “tab maximum”: millions, even tens of millions of RMB. Because of this type of gray income compensation, some officials will host holidays, host ceremonies, host visitors, host as a service, host for work… any time they want to eat or drink, they can host a banquet, and eat the best food available on land and sea. Drinking themselves into a stupor comes with this. Of course, the restaurants that offer this “tab service” gets quite an advantage too; there’s quite a bit of profit ready for the taking. The more that’s signed, the more that everyone gains. Numbers show that every year, more than 200 billion RMB of public money is spent on eating and drinking every year. That’s equivalent to eating a Three Gorges Dam – and behind the “Dam” lies a series of official signatures.

Just one meal for an environmental protection agency is 6815 RMB, meaning more than 200 RMB per person. Spending this amount on a working meal is certainly more than respectable in any city in China. No one knows how frequently they do this, but based on the attitude they showed, they probably contribute quite a bit to the “Three Gorges Dam” of consumption.

In this time of national difficulty, the national State Council arranged a work meeting on May 21st. They rolled out a campaign of supporting those in the disaster zone by cutting consumption and wastage nation wide: government and Party offices at every level must cut down on conferences, hosting visitors, paid-for vacations, usage of public cars, and also compress study groups going overseas. Strict controls were put in place on purchases of government cars, and all construction of government-related buildings was temporarily halted. Every department within the national government has to cut its budget by 5%, and use it towards relieving the earthquake disaster. But this latest incident in Holhot has shown the tremendous difficulty in cutting down consumption in some government officials.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

7 Responses to “Can those “putting it on the tab” go on a diet?”

  1. Nimrod Says:

    Government officials everywhere tend to get perks. I found out some time ago that Congresspeople get interesting perks that I certainly did not expect. But this is pretty outrageous though we are al used to it.

  2. BMY Says:

    officers everywhere tend to get perks is true but I think the problem in China is far more serious than in the US. millions of poor peasants are struggling to put basic food on the table for their kids while these suckers spend 200RMB/head for a work meal.

  3. Buxi Says:

    I think the problem in China is very severe too… probably 90% of their income comes from “gray” sources.

    But how do you solve the problem? You know, fundamentally, I think the problem might be that officials are not paid enough… at least not in “white” income. (I’m serious!)

    For these officials in Holhot, they are coming into contact with developers and businessmen who make “developed economy” incomes. When businessmen making $10000 USD a month come to officials making $1000 USD a month to get things done, corruption will absolutely follow. You can see this sort of institutionalized corruption in every developing country around the world. I’m not familiar with a single clean developing country.

    Or, alternatively, these officials will be sucked away by the private industry. Someone with decades of local experience and close connections in the Communist Party can easily make $100k+ as a consultant or manager for multi-national businesses… that’s pocket change.

    How do you avoid this level of corruption? These higher officials need an income matching at least *close* to what they’d make in private industry, *close* to what the people they’re working with are making.

    Besides, if China was a democracy today, who will you find to take this job for the current salary? Hu Jintao’s salary is only 3000 RMB a month, I think. How much is the office chairman in Inner Mongolia making in her regular salary? 2000 RMB? She might as well go be a secretary in a foreign enterprise.

    But how do you pay these officials that income? Past raises for civil servants have been met with outrage by the public. This is a real question. Is it possible that gray income and perks is the *only* way to get decent professionals in these positions?

  4. BMY Says:

    the cause of corruption and the ways to solve are very big topics. they have something to do with history,culture,political,economic. As long as political power and bushinesses interests are there, there is always exchange via corruption.

    But for this particular case and many similar working meal cases exist in China everywhere, there is no justification to spend that much on working meals because of the government officers’ wages. the government officers spending on working meals each year are more than education budget(need verify).

    It might be a culture thing need to change. I never worked in public sectors in the west so not too sure about their work meals. I once worked for a company which had clients like Microsoft,Nokia and Ford. When those clients came to have meetings with us, the work meals(normally lunch) were just sand witches ,fruits,milk and juice on the meeting table.

  5. S.K. Cheung Says:

    When you work as a public servant, I don’t think you will ever get paid as much as in the private sector. But perhaps the trade-off is some increased job security, a government pension, etc. But no matter where you are, you’re going to have income disparities when private sector worker meets public sector worker. And i’m sure the potential for corruption exists everywhere. THe way to counter that is with accountability, and transparency. Have public meetings and seek stakeholder input on capital/infrastructure projects. Put public contracts to tender. Make decisions by committee, rather than with one individual. (gasp!) have public servants advise elected officials, but let elected officials make the final call, as often occurs in a democracy. As you suggest, China’s got a long way to go in this regard; as I alluded to elsewhere, not sure how a democracy could do any worse than the current situation.
    As for a running tab, our province has annual disclosure of public expenditures, down to credit card expenses of individual government ministries. IN fact, there was a recent brouhaha over one ministry spending $30K in a year on coffee and donuts. That it happened is disappointing, but at least we found out about it. Until China can achieve similar transparency, there’s nothing to stop such abuses. For every reporter who stumbles on a $6K tab, who knows how many officials are getting loaded on the public’s dime as we type.

  6. Buxi Says:

    S.K. Cheung,

    I agree with you on the importance of transparency. That’s certainly a key aspect of improving governance and reducing this level of corruption.

    We’ll have to continue to monitor where the “release of information” law just implemented last month will have any significant effect. A media given free rein to tackle corruption without being too concerned about “social stability” will definitely help, as well.

  7. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Buxi:
    speaking of accountability and transparency, is there any update on the Red Cross in China earthquake relief stuff you posted a while back?

Leave a Reply