In an uncertain global economy, even free-spending Chinese autocrats have to tighten their belts.
Administrative spending has been frozen and political cadres at all levels are increasingly being required to publicize their spending on cars, work trips and hospitality, China’s finance minister, Xie Xuren told a press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, an appointed body that serves as China’s parliament.
As GDP growth slows and regional governments find themselves heavily in debt after lending too freely, some tough love is coming from Beijing. Local governments are being ordered to set up debt-repayment funds and to finish projects now under construction; Mr. Xie also promised to tighten regulation of local financing.
But this new austerity is also meant to extend to government officials themselves, a key issue in a system in which politics and business are inextricably linked and many of China’s political leaders are also the country’s wealthiest men and women.
You need only to look at who’s driving on the streets to see the evidence. In The Globe and Mail’s Driver Zhao index, the Audi A6 is the preferred car for Chinese officials, frequently seen weaving around the bicycles and Chinese-brand sedans that make up the fleet of the masses. Audi sold more than 313,000 cars here last year, surpassing its home market of Germany.
There have been plenty of luxury cars on display in the capital this week, as delegates have come in from out of town to sit in political meetings by day and dine and shop by evening.
But corruption among officials is a flashpoint for common folk facing 10 per cent food inflation and soaring housing costs, and that has begun to register among the upper echelons where the primary goal is preserving ‘social harmony’ along with their grip on power.
Earlier this week, the Ministry of Industry circulated a new draft vehicle procurement catalogue which lists only one foreign car – a Nissan manufactured in China – among more than 400 acceptable options, presumably an effort to simultaneously boost the domestic car industry and repair the image of government officials wheeling around in expensive foreign cars with tinted windows.
As of last summer, all central departments and many provincial and municipal departments have been publishing their spending reports, and Mr. Xie said these new guidelines would continue.
“As for the principle of being thrifty, we are making great effort to reduce administrative costs,” he said. “We require the local governments to restrict their administrative costs and their management.”