'Corruption on wheels' in China
By Stephanie Wang

CHANGSHA, China - During the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in August, residents of the Chinese capital were impressed by the blue sky over the city; many of them had almost forgotten the sky could look so clean.

Part of Beijing’s efforts to control its notorious air pollution during the Olympics was to sharply reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, about 70% of government-owned cars and 50% of private cars were banned from driving in the city from July 20 to September 20.

Inspired by the success, Beijing Municipality decided to continue car restrictions after the Games, starting from October 1 and 30% of government vehicles were to be "sealed up" and kept in garages.

The remaining official cars, together with private vehicles, were restricted from driving on the roads from November 10, with one out of five cars banned from driving on weekdays. Shanghai Municipality and Jiangsu province have followed suit.

Beijing's authorities seem to be operating as usual despite the great reduction in the use of official cars, which raises the question: if the government could function so well without so many cars, why did it spend so much public money to buy and maintain so many vehicles in the first place?

This issue has now become the focus of much public attention, with commentaries in the media and Internet calling for the central government to launch reforms of the current system, which they say lavished officials with cars at the public's expense.

According to a popular estimate, there are more than 5 million government motor vehicles in China, most of which are chauffeured sedans provided for officials and paid for by public funds. The cost of drivers' salaries and to buy, maintain, and fuel these cars was some 600 billion yuan ($878 million) in 2006.

By comparison, China spent in that year 610.4 billion yuan on education, science and technology, and public health, 71.6 billion yuan on social security and 181.7 billion on national defense.

Running on public funds, these cars seem much more costly than others. According to the Hainan Daily, transport companies in Hainan province estimate the cost of each 10,000 kilometers at 8,215.40 yuan, yet the figure for government cars was 50,361 yuan, 6.13 times the former.

From 1986 to 2005, China’s administrative overheads, of which car maintenance was a major portion, grew by 23 times, but the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) increased by only 14.6 times during the same period.

What also upsets the public is official corruption involved in the equipment and use of government cars, so much so that there is a new term in Chinese - "corruption on wheels".

There have been many reports of local officials embezzling funds from education and disaster relief funds to buy luxury cars for their own use. It is also commonplace for officials to use government cars for private trips. At tourist spots on holidays, one can find many government vehicles in the parking lots.

Officials also use government cars to send their children to school. For example, Huashang News reported that 32 government cars were seen in front of two primary schools on September 1 in Baoji, a relatively poor city in northwestern Shaanxi province.

Obviously, all government cars are not needed for official business trips all the time, so people are now asking exactly how many cars would be enough to keep the government functioning.

According to a commentary by Zhujiang Evening News, China could get rid of 80% of its government cars without hurting its daily operation and efficiency. It said that during the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2006, the capital city government garaged 80% of its 620,000 cars. And "the capital city was in good order and traffic was smooth".

"If Beijing, the national capital, could run well with 80% less government vehicles, so can the whole country. The whole country may just need a million government cars," it said.

In fact, since the mid-1990s, the central government has tried several times to reign in abuse of the government car system through issuing toughly-worded regulations, but they have had little effect.

Because of this, many people doubt the harsh restrictions on government cars planned for Beijing, Shanghai and Jiangsu will really be implemented. Even the Shanghai Daily quoted a local civil servant as saying that the new rules were symbolic at best, because there were no specified punishments for violations or an effective system to catch rule-breakers.

"Officials' own interests are concerned here. Who does not want to have a free car at his disposal? In early 1990, only minister-level officials were entitled to have a government car. But now even a section head in a small city government may 'own' a government car," a sociology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said.

But the ever-rising number of government cars and the flagrant abuse of their usage has become a source of growing public discontent. "You can see in recent public protests, such as the riots in Weng'an, Guizhou province, in late June, and the recent ones in Guangdong, protesters smashed or set fire to government vehicles to vent their anger. This has rarely been seen before," the sociologist said.

It is time for the central government to take the issue seriously before it becomes a potential threat to social stability, he adds.

If the government is serious and determined to tackle the problem through the rule of law, it need only hand over the budget and legislate laws to the National People’s Congress, which would then be responsible for restricting the number and usage of government cars. Local people's congresses could follow suit, and the management of government cars would be more transparent and open to public supervision, the sociologist said. "The question is not whether it can be done, but rather whether there is the will to do it."

Stephanie Wang is a freelance writer from China.