Tyler Cowen reported an interesting statistic today in his blog.
“Chinese academics have estimated that government officials spend about 500 billion yuan ($73 billion) in public funds each year on official banquets, nearly one-third of the nation’s expenses on dining out.”
Of course, this probably isn’t that surprising to Chinese people. I suspect one reason the figure is so high is because “officials” can be a pretty broad term, that likely encompasses many, many levels of government service (unfortunately I can’t find a citation of the original source). In a communist system, a factory manager in a state-run company, or head of a local agricultural collective are de facto public employees. It should also be unsurprising given that basic salaries for these officials are so low, and public employees and civil servants already rely on other perks such as heavily-subsidized housing to supplement their wages and create a higher real income, leaving less incentive to petition for an increase in earning and reform a currently lucrative system.
There’s an expression in Chinese: “you quan jiu you qian”. It translates roughly to “to have power is to have money”. So despite a communist ideology preaching equality (or at least some parity) of personal wealth, officials routinely use the resources and connections of their department for personal ends — drivers/the company car, dinners, free opera tickets, dinners, gifts, etc. On one hand I imagine Western/American politicians are a bit better, and certainly with much less cultural acceptance. On the other hand I’m reminded of the great BBC comedy series Yes, Minister (and Yes, Prime Minister), where a running joke was the power, corruption, and extravagance of the UK’s Civil Service…
My own limited experience has only confirmed this Chinese corruption phenomenon. When I vacationed in China in middle school, a relative (some medium/high-ranking official in the city health department) commissioned her company driver to take us out for an overnight “camping trip” in the mountains. The car, the whole lamb and other provisions we purchased, the use of the driver, the rental of the massive Uighur ger, and the hiring of the Uighur guides/helpers were all expensed to her department. My dad recently returned from a month-long business trip in China and told us that he had spent a total of 80 yuan ($11) during his entire stay — the rest was reimbursed or paid for.
There are signs, however, that public opinion in China is turning against the banality of corruption in government, perhaps because more of the economy and employment is being shifted to the private sector. The Chinese government recently found $1.5 billion of public funds held by officials for private use in a recent crackdown, and seems willing to hand out death sentences for these cases of embezzlement. Last year China cracked down on officials drinking during lunch on the public dime, and sent around inspectors to administer surprise breathalyzer exams in government offices with the power to fire those who were found to have been drinking. It remains to be seen whether it will crack down on the ‘soft’, quasi-legal corruption of expensing official banquets and the like.