The Chinese Art Of Balancing Budgets By Booking Vacations With Taxpayer Cash

One middle manager takes us inside an all-too-common practice: public offices that must spend their annual funding increasingly turn to travel agencies to set up all-expense-paid vacations for the whole staff. And of course, the big bosses get extra speci

A tourist bus in Beijing (unfoldedorigami)
A tourist bus in Beijing (unfoldedorigami)
Jia Yifang

Mr. Liu was just promoted to the job of deputy director of a small Investment Promotion Bureau in a northeast Chinese city that must remain nameless. Among Liu's end-of-the-year duties is balancing the bureau's books. Unlike offices elsewhere in the world these days, he did not face the problem of costs. Instead Liu had to figure out how to spend the leftover annual public funds. For if he couldn't spend it all, the bureau was bound to get much less money next year. All this extra cash: what a headache!

Fortunately a friend from a public department in the nearby city of Dalian offered an idea. "Take a trip abroad, and call it an official visit. Take all your staff. Not only will you spend the money, you'll have lots of fun!" The friend explained that his office had taken two recent "business trips' to Taiwan.

Another friend soon connected Liu to a local travel agency, where he booked an eight-day trip around Taiwan, with stays in four-star hotels. But at 6000 RMB ($946) per person, it seemed a bit much. Liu felt uneasy. After all this was the first time he was making such a decision. The travel agent misunderstood Liu's hesitancy as a hint for a discount, so immediately knocked off 100 RMB per person. Liu was amazed by the offer. And again, the agent took his reaction as a rejection of the offer, and continued to bargain: "Tell us frankly how much you want, my brother, and we'll arrange everything. No worries, we deal with such arrangement. We'll get you something additional on the flights."

Liu handed the dossier for the proposed business trip to his superior. What a surprise. Not only did he endorse it right away, he told Liu to purchase delicious Taiwan specialties on the trip. Liu had never expected that by spending money for his office, he could also put something aside for himself. But obviously, he realized, someone else was making even more than he did.

The Year-End Feast

Chang Yixuan, who has been working in the governmental travel sector for more than 10 years, was happy to talk about his business. For a lot of travel agencies, the year-end government tour groups are their biggest business. They set up so-called "Big Client Departments' to cater to these high-end groups. They provide tailor-made pleasure trips dubbed as "Fact-finding seminars' or "Business opportunity evaluations trips."

"These people want the best and the most expensive of everything," says Chang. "Nothing else matters."

Trying to alleviate the "pressure" of how to spend the remaining budget at the end of the year, certain government departments negotiate their yearly travel plan right at the beginning of the year. For the travel agencies, no one is a better client than a public servant. The 12% profit margin is much higher than ordinary public tours.

China's Ministry of Finance has repeatedly stressed the need for supervision of how Chinese officials manage their budgets. But with general public services spending increasing more than 10% each year, expenditure like Liu's is a drop in the bucket.

Fortunately, Liu can relax and does not have to worry about the tens of millions remaining in the budget. "The leaders take the burden of spending the leftover money on themselves… small personal expenses like five star hotels, and top class suits and drinks, but they can also renew their fleet of cars, or pass large orders for office supplies. They take care of the problem."

Read the original article in full in Chinese

Photo - unfoldedorigami

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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