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China's official opulence

Public servants enjoy resort-style amenities in many new government buildings. Bureaucrats get facials as citizens steam over corruption.

December 18, 2006|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

Tianjin, China — VISITORS to the Tanggu district administrative offices are greeted by common watchwords plastered inside some public buildings: honesty, transparency, efficiency.

Once they pass through security, though, they're often surprised to find government officials working out in the gym, splashing in the Olympic-size swimming pool, playing cards in the game parlor, shooting pool or getting facials at the salon.

"When I first went into the government building, I thought I entered the wrong gate. This building is fancier than high-end hotels," said Guiqiu, a local in her 40s who, fearing reprisals, requested that her family name not be used. "I was so angry that these officials are only thinking about using our money to enjoy themselves. If only they can use the money to help ordinary people."

At a time when Beijing is struggling with rampant government corruption and a citizenry suspicious of Communist Party officials, the $40-million office building in this northern coastal city of 10 million has become a symbol of what is wrong with China's government. Locals call the complex fubai lou, or "corruption building."

China's central government is aware that such extravagance reflects broader problems that are threatening the nation's social fabric. Land grabs and other lawless behavior involving local officials have led to numerous and sometimes violent protests. Chinese scholars say corruption in the party ranks has contributed to a crisis of trust.

President Hu Jintao and other leaders fear that corruption could undermine the party's authority and the nation's recent prosperity. In recent months, Hu and others have cracked down on officials suspected of abusing their power. They have ousted a Beijing vice mayor, Shanghai's party boss, a deputy commander in China's navy and prominent provincial officials, all on corruption allegations.

To appease the masses, Hu has eliminated taxes for farmers in the countryside and pledged to deliver better healthcare and education.

But in the eyes of many Chinese, some of the most blatant examples of corruption are the opulent government office resorts that local party leaders regard as must-haves. Using money from land sales, taxes and China's booming economy, they sometimes work to trump one another by erecting buildings that are bigger and grander than their neighbors'.

In central China, Huangjin, a small town along the Yangtze River, spent nearly 10 times its annual budget of $75,000 to construct seven Tiananmen-like buildings along a slope. People must walk up 21 flights of stairs -- signifying the 21st century -- to get to the first level, then 90 more steps to reach the meeting hall at the top.

Tai'an city in Shandong province, about 270 miles south of Beijing, built an $80-million white palace at the foot of Mount Tai. Fountains set to music are adorned with 2,480 lights and shoot water 200 feet into the air.

Huiji district's complex in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, is even grander: futuristic and domed buildings on 85 acres landscaped like a theme park, with waterfalls, arch bridges and artificial lakes.

Such extravagant displays are appalling to Ren Yuling, a standing committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to China's legislature. Ren says they are wasteful and a strain on government budgets. He has submitted proposals in the last two years for Beijing to limit such behavior.

"The reason I proposed that was because I saw government buildings were too luxurious while many schoolrooms were still leaking," Ren said. The proposals have gone nowhere.

The Tanggu district building that has raised hackles in Tianjin consists of twin 25-story towers connected by a skywalk. Some locals snicker that the towers and skywalk look like two liquor bottles connected by a carton of cigarettes -- common gifts to party cadres.

The front entrance to the towers appears intimidating. Visitors must climb scores of steps to reach the doorway. Emblazoned at the top of the facade is the Communist government's red seal with five stars. On a recent afternoon, a group of homeowners made their way up the stairs to protest forced relocations. They were peacefully escorted away by police.

Locals are urged to enter the building through the back, where they are screened by white-gloved security officers. Only a couple of floors are open to the public. A side door leads to most of the recreational facilities.

Li Xinde, an anti-corruption activist from Anhui province, said he asked local government leaders whether he could see the building after Tianjin residents contacted him. He was allowed to visit on a Saturday afternoon in the summer when the facility was virtually empty.

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