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How government waste threatens conservation

China wants to cut inefficiency and create a “conserving society”. But its efforts may be undermined by profligate local governments, argues Tang Hao.
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In the past few years China’s central government has begun promoting the concept of a “conserving society”. But this should not just be an economic concept; it should be a mode of social development driven by need to conserve China’s resources. And in a country like China, with its traditionally “government-led society”, there can be no doubt that a “conserving government” is needed. However, local governments are among the most wasteful factors in Chinese society, and it is hard to see how they can currently help us achieve that goal.

Waste in government work

Firstly, we should look at some of the ostentatious offices that local governments build. One district in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, has government buildings that cover 100 mu (66,670 square metres), with six office buildings and a giant hemispherical conference centre surrounded by greenery and fountains. Officials in one district of Fuyang, in Anhui province, have housed themselves in a building modelled on the White House. Locals have dubbed a local government office in the city of Chongqing “China’s most luxurious neighbourhood government office”; a township government office in the same city mimics Beijing’s Tian’anmen Gate. These buildings take up valuable urban real estate, yet are constructed and decorated to standards entirely out of step with the modest means of the populations they are supposed to serve.

We should also consider the day-to-day waste these institutions generate. Astronomical sums are spent on eating at restaurants on a government tab, on the use of government cars and the hosting of elaborate ceremonies. The use of government cars for private purposes cost the country over 200 billion yuan in 2006 (around US$26 billion), according to Liu Guangfu, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, around the same amount as the national defence budget. In fact, government vehicles are only used for their intended purposes one-third of the time.

Government also consumes shocking amounts of water and electricity. One survey in Beijing found that 48 government institutions used four times as much energy and three times as much water as the average Beijing resident. Government organisations were found to use as much as 9,402 kilowatt-hours per person every year – 19 times the average for the city. In other words, a public servant in their government office uses as much electricity in one day as an average citizen does in 19 days. 

It seems the real source of waste is not the people, but their government. But why are public assets so readily wasted? The answer lies in a lack of supervision and punishment mechanisms, and a lack of respect for taxpayers on the part of the government.

Cutting consumption

US economist Thorstein Veblen wrote inThe Theory of the Leisure Class that conspicuous consumption is primarily aimed at displaying one’s superior status. But the case of China’s local governments is not that simple.

Recent increases in property and land prices have meant rocketing incomes – far in excess of GDP growth – for local governments, who have a monopoly on land resources. This has meant more and more waste, and in other countries the government could not act so freely. Excessive government spending betrays a lack of political awareness – and a lack of respect for the taxpayers and their money. Government officials believe the only way they can benefit from the money is to spend it, and act as if there were no point in saving it. The motto seems to be: as long as the money doesn’t actually end up in your pocket, spend it as you will. This attitude damages both social and political morals.

There are also three structural reasons for this wastefulness. Firstly, the limits of government power are unclear, and it is easy for officials to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Secondly, there is a lack of government oversight, and there are no limits or supervision on government use of funds. Government offices are exempt from any limits on energy usage, and when electricity is cut to factories and homes to save power during peak hours, it is still business as usual for government. Thirdly, current supervision of public finances is inefficient, and government auditing of public finances requires far less in terms of cost-saving measures than private businesses. The foundations of both corruption and waste lie in these systematic problems. With anti-corruption measures becoming ever stronger, some officials are opting to spend money on large, luxurious projects that they can also benefit from.

Besides a lack of self-regulation, there is no public supervision of government. The taxpaying citizen – the natural regulator of government – is excluded from the supervision process. This is a major reason that local governments continue to consume so excessively at the public expense; the people do not have the awareness of western taxpayers and are so used to government waste that they sometimes see it as normal.

Waste is not the preserve of a few at the government level – it is a widespread social phenomena arising from structural factors. These failures mean that prudent government is not rewarded and profligacy goes unpunished. As economic entities acting in their own interest, local governments have the motive and the opportunity to benefit and become truly “wasteful governments”. And when the advocate of a “conserving society” is itself wasteful, its slogans will fall on deaf ears.

Building a conserving government

There are three changes that governments can make to prevent such waste. Firstly, the relationship between the government and the market should be put in order, and the government’s size must be reduced. In a government-led economy, constant interference in the market results in the government’s size and roles expanding, despite efforts to simplify it. Transforming and limiting these roles – and thus slimming government – is essential to reduce spending. Secondly, the state should consider reducing taxes, forcing local governments to tighten their belts. Thirdly, a new government budgeting mechanism must be put in place, government operational costs should be audited and effective internal control mechanisms should be established to bring free-spending officials under control.

There are many things people can do to help build a less wasteful government and society; for instance, we can apply public pressure to increase transparency and encourage openness in government spending. China Central Television has recently exposed a series of cases of excessive government spending, which contributed to the central government issuing policies on dealing with this waste. This type of action has limits, but it may help stop the rot from spreading – and improve mechanisms for government oversight. However, to truly transform our current “wasteful governments” into “conserving governments” we need to make social supervision regular and sustained, and not merely temporary protests.


Tang Hao, born in 1974, is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.

Homepage photo by Xie Xian he Luobote

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

分析得深刻

制度和观念层面的缺陷是主因,而能解决的力量又来自政府.谁会和自己过不去呢?所以说要改变很难.
小民百姓能做的就是先管好自己,再试着影响周围的人,也就只能尽力而为了.

thought-provoking analysis

Flaws of the regulations and human perceptions are the main reasons behind, but the driving force for resolution is the government. Who is to treat himself as an enemy? So changes are difficult. As us ordinary people, just get ourselves organized first, then try influencing the people around. That's probably all that we can do.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

且重要害!

即使是对个人,自制也是最难的,政府也一样,必须要有监督。

Right to the point!

Self-control is the most difficult, even to individuals, let along the government. Supervision is a must.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

浪费型政府”与“节约型社会

政府官员是来为老百姓办事的,而不是拿老百姓的钱来豪华门面和自己。一个个漂亮豪华的楼房解决了老百姓的困难了吗? 这样的政府官员要裁职。都说资本主义国家不好。资本主义国家政府还没有嚣张到这种程度。老百姓问题长期的不到帮助和解决,要养这些政府官员干什么? 还要什么政府干什么? 浪费,排场,宴会都是来满足个人的私欲,权力和斗争。如果说,中国社会广泛存在 的政府浪费现象决非某些人的生活习惯问题,而是由结构性因素所产生的社会普遍现象。 老百姓应该全体起来依法律的民意来控告政府的腐败。因这都老百姓血汗的钱养着这批寄生虫!。

Prodigal government vs frugal society

Existence of government official is to provide assistance to citizens, but not to use the money contributed by citizens for their own luxurious living. Does every luxury building resolve the problem of citizens? Such government official should be sacked. It has been mentioned that practicing capitalism is bad. Government in those capitalism countries has yet to be so arrogant. In long term, problems facing by those citizens in the country haven’t received any assistance and resolution, what is the point to have them? Then, who care to have that kind of government? Lavishment, ostentation and extravagance, banquet, all these are to fulfill personal selfish desire, power and battle. Let’s say, if the existence of prodigal government is extensive happen in Chinese society, and it is not the problem of customs and habits for certain group of people, but it is a general phenomenon caused by design ability. Due to the fact that, the difficult earnings contributed by citizens have flown to those ‘parasites’ of the society, hence, all citizens should cooperate to take legal action against this putrescence government.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

浪费型政府”与“节约型社会

政府官员人的权力和财政权力要分开。不能混和为一体。不能一人说了数。每个部门的任务,和责任都要有条理和明确规定。比方说,政府收到一笔钱是作为农村教育基金,若这笔钱用了别的用途,没有落实到农村的需要,政府官员就要受到法律制裁。赔款,坐牢。国内政府之所以这样嚣张浪费,就是因为没有严格的法律制裁和各个部门的责任!

Prodigal government vs frugal society

The power of authority for government official should be segregated from financial power. It shouldn’t blend together. The duty for each of every department and their responsibility must be systematic and definite. It can’t be in one-man control situation. For instance, if government receives funding which should be allocated as education fund for rural area, however, it has been used for other purposes, but does not implement accordingly, the government should suffer from legal sanction. Indemnity, imprisoned. The prodigal attitudes from the government are due to lack of tough sanctions and responsibility from various departments.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

浪费型政府”与“节约型社会

中国学会了美国人的很多东西。中国政府为何不学学美国政府对老百姓的服务,解决老百姓的问题和怎样制止贪污,腐败和财政问题。我在美国政府财政部门工作过。他们的一笔一帐都有明显的交代。个人没有任和的权力来开支一笔资金来娱乐和花天酒地!最多业务上的往来,也有收据最多也是不到$100 美金的餐馆帐单的对一个市政来说。若市政府有什么项目需要投资,投资直接进入单位。投资单位有直接帐单汇报。当然也是有东西出来。

Prodigal government vs frugal society

China has been learning from the US in various aspects. But, how come they never learn to serve their civilians in solving their problems, to stop corruption as well as financial issue. I used to work for the US Finance Department. Each of their expenses is always made clear. Individual in the department would not have authority to spend a single penny for entertainment! For those entertainment expenses which dealing with business, always prove with receipt, the bill from restaurant usually never more then $100. If the State Government requested for any investment funding, the fund will be directed to the respective unit. The unit involved will show their balance sheet. Definitely, will show some results as well.