Does China Have The Stomach To End The Public Feast Of Corruption?

Each year Chinese officials spend 300 billion RMB ($48 billion) of public money just for eating
Each year Chinese officials spend 300 billion RMB ($48 billion) of public money just for eating
Wang Yong

Excessive feasting by public officials has a long and wide history in China.

The fundamental source of its prevalence is actually not even the hearty appetites of the officials in question. These people are sacrificing a lot themselves in this banquet culture. On the lighter side, people may just lose a previously slim figure. In more serious cases, one can even lose a life. This is clearly a battlefield rather than a source for entertainment. For these extravagant meals are necessary for the networking of highly informal discussions with personal contacts that allow for an exchange of interests.

It's estimated that each year Chinese officials spend around 300 billion RMB ($48 billion) of public money just for eating. The harm this brings to society goes far beyond this upfront economic investment. Indeed, spending public funds on fancy meals can also boost GDP growth: when one abalone ends up in an official stomach it brings profit and employment to the entrepreneurs and workers who are involved in this industrial chain.

Compared with blind government investment that leads to trillions of built-in overcapacity, this is much more cost-efficient and low risk. Further proof is that since China's new leaders introduced the “eight new provisions” administrative circular to advocate frugality in the public sector, the first two months of the year have seen the catering industry face its first decline in revenues in the 35 years since China's economic liberalization.

No, the real damage of using people's hard-earned money to eat and drink is that it's used to feed a system of corruption. When officials get closer in unofficial settings, their relations are bound to be distorted. Corruption requires a network. Banquets weave the network. The network contributes to collusion in maneuvering around policies and laws.

The other more profound harm of using public expenditure for entertaining is the huge waste of time and energy for officials who could be working instead toward the public good. In 1980, when Hu Yaobang, the then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, learned that the Chinese authorities spent 20 billion RMB ($3.2 billion) annually on entertaining, he was on one hand distressed by the waste and on the other hand saddened by how little thought and energy the officials had left over for the task of developing China's economy and for institutional innovation. Worse still, the waste wasn't just official time and energy at the table, but even more the implementation cost of the collusions which were concluded at these meals.

How to remedy this particular ill has been a thorny issue. Thus the "eight provisions" that aim to reduce official pomp and extravagancy is no less important a policy than any economic measure. This is the way China's new leaders have set out to rectify officialdom's style, to win the people's hearts, and establish their credibility.

The effect has been obvious. Throughout every corner of China, the high-end hotels have become desolate. Officials are keeping a lower profile. When they do show up occasionally at a banquet they are very discreet.

Three Public Expenses

The Chinese government's battle against extravagant meals recently created a wonderfully comic event. Zhang Aihua, director of the Riverside Industrial Park in Taizhou City in Jiangsu province, was caught by the local public indulging in an excessively expensive banquet. He was so panicked that he knelt on the table to "beg for mercy." Though the official journal later explained that Zhang had knelt to persuade the public to disperse and was in no way begging for pardon, the symbolic scene and the official's contrite expression spread quickly across the Chinese Internet.

The reality is that though officials are more circumspect in throwing banquets, the custom still continues. They have moved from public hotel restaurants to discreet clubs. The online uproars may be worrisome, but they pass.

As China aims at its chronic problem of the “Three Public Expenses” – foreign trips, official vehicles and hospitality expenses - it is not via a microblogged outcry that they will be controlled, but through vigorous financial information disclosure and the establishment of laws.

Because of the current pressure coming from the central authority, the ministries, public enterprises and all levels of local government are gradually publicizing their Three Public Expenses. However the various tips and tricks as how to release this information to the public has quickly become the bold new frontier of accounting innovation. Certain government departments simply register catering items as conference expenses, foreign travel expenses can be recast as “international exchanges.” The list goes on.

A government’s civility and credibility are embodied in the degree of transparency of its financial actions. China still remains very backward on this front. The technical aspects of the systems are not difficult. The key lies in the determination of the political leaders. The new government shouldn’t let go of the issue of the Three Public Expenses, and should take it as an opportunity to establish a solid foundation for further political reforms.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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