- - Thursday, August 4, 2011

BEIJING — It might not be the beginning of a Chinese tea party movement, but some citizens are railing about bureaucratic waste as the Communist Party releases some details about government spending.

Internet-savvy Chinese are using social networking to share their complaints about extravagant government spending. Even the state-controlled media are starting to grumble. Caijing magazine called for the government to prosecute bureaucrats who still ignore the June 30 deadline for reporting on some expenses.

“They just don’t have a sense of how much money they’re spending,” said Liang Xiaoqin, a Chinese college student from Nanjing.

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In March, the government ordered all 98 agencies to release their 2010 budgets for official banquets, overseas travel and the cost of government vehicles. The expenses are known as “san gong spending” and are the first budgets the government has made public.

The Ministry of Science and Technology was the only agency to meet the deadline, and 14 departments still have not released their budgets.

Despite what the government described as the “large budget cuts” of 2009 and 2010, most of the published reports showed an increase in spending, with at least 10 agencies lavishing more than $9.2 million for san gong expenses alone.

Ironically, one of the largest budget increases was for the agency that approves the budgets of all other agencies. The Ministry of Finance added nearly $1 million to its budget, an increase of 14 percent.

Although the spending reports hardly represent a full picture of the total budget, analysts say their release is a step in the right direction.

“Now, the people will have a basis,” said Zeng Kanghua, a professor at the Central University of Finance and Economics. “Now that they can know what’s really happening, they can continue to monitor what the officials are doing.”

He said the release of the budgets should put some pressure on the government to control spending.

Mr. Zeng said government officials have become used to spending public funds however they want for their personal convenience and vacations and have never answered to anyone for it.

The san gong reports now spotlight such frivolous behavior.

For example, the Chinese Academy of Sciences spent $15.4 million on banquets alone, and the Prosecutorial Department spent $850,000 just on bus fares - figures the agencies normally would not want released.

Mr. Zeng said the san gong budget reports will encourage citizens to pay more attention to government spending.

“People will begin to see that they have rights [as taxpayers],” Mr. Zeng said.

However, analysts and citizens alike agree that the Chinese government will need to take further steps to make a real difference in the spending habits of bureaucrats.

The san gong budgets show rounded-off numbers and contain few details about specific expenses, said Ye Qing, a member of the National People’s Congress who is campaigning to cut san gong spending.

Without any further details, the reported numbers can be deceiving, Mr. Ye told the South China Morning Post newspaper.

The Ministry of Agriculture had one of the largest san gong budgets, totaling $37 million. However, the agency divided that number by its payroll of 84,000 employees and 86,000 retirees to report that it spent only $217 per worker.

On the other hand, the Poverty Alleviation office’s $225,000 san gong spending added up to an average of $1,680 per employee.

Such discrepancies are not readily revealed by the san gong reports, Mr. Zeng said.

A commentary on the financial news site Hexun.com argued that a more scientific approach - one that takes into account staff and functions - would be needed to more effectively monitor and control government spending in China.

The limited experiment in reporting on government budgets leaves Chinese citizens like Ms. Liang feeling powerless.

“People complaining is not going to stop them from spending. They’ve been doing it for so long,” she said.

Ms. Liang said she expects little to change until the government imposes laws to rein in spendthrift bureaucrats.

“The reason they give us the san gong is that they want the public to watch the government,” Ms. Liang said. “But since there is no legal limit on government spending, there’s nothing we can actually do about it.”

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