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They need time in Hawaii to relax – Public spending on overseas travel

The “three public expenditures” refers to public spending on government vehicles, banquets, and overseas travel. This part of spending is the most hotly debated, and one that netizens have already won symbolic victories in (meaningful ones will come more slowly). Government agencies are now supposed to make this part of their budget public, but many have simply refused to release the information or claim that it is a “state secret.”

While I have no idea how much public money is spent on travel, I am familiar with the kinds of trips government employees take, and I think this gives an interesting glimpse of the decision making process that goes into this. Note: my office is responsible for all travel by hospital employees, and these trips are covered by funds from the provincial ministry of health.

Currently a hospital in Northern Jiangsu is preparing to attend a 14 day seminar in the US at a cost of over $3,000 per person. When I asked them what they were hoping to learn at this program they shrugged their shoulders and said, “It will help us broaden our horizons.” The seminar consists of 10 two hour lectures, followed by “cultural events” which seems to be visiting parks, eating, and perhaps a hockey game. The schedule also includes 4 full days with no planned activities besides shopping.

Without any clear stated purpose, doctors going on the trip have said that it seems like more of a vacation than work. Indeed, organizers of the seminar emphasized that there would be time for rest and relaxation. The value of the seminar appears to be secondary to the trip, especially given that most of the seminar is directed at clinical work, but those chosen to attend it are mostly hospital administrators that “deserve” to go abroad.

Meanwhile at my wife’s school “leaders” are planning a whirlwind tour of American universities (which for some reason has become part of my wife’s job). She was told that they should visit some campuses and museums while “enjoying American culture” and that she needed to have their schedule conclude in Hawaii. The dean who gave her this assignment made sure to repeat the fact that the leaders needed time in Hawaii to “relax”. When she asked whether or not they needed to meet with any college representatives during their trip, the dean replied that it wouldn’t be necessary. The goal is just to see college campuses, and not even at the same level that prospective students would.

Again the idea was stressed by the dean that it didn’t matter that the leaders had no clear goals, they would be opening their minds, (perhaps they were really big fans of Eat Pray Love?). This college by the way, is not one of China’s elite institutions, just one of dozens of mid-level universities in Jiangsu.

This irresponsible use of public funds is another strong argument for a free press. Due to the limited oversight of these budgets, local gov’ts and state agencies know that this money rarely has to be accounted for, and use it for their own pleasure. Whether it’s purchasing an Audi as a police car, meals consisting of wild or endangered animals and exorbitantly priced liquor, or taking a trip to Hawaii to “open their minds,” gov’t waste undermines the Party’s stated beliefs, and worsens the public’s attitude toward the gov’t.

Lessons from a traffic jam

I ride the bus almost everyday here in Nanjing. From home to work, the journey is just about 2.5 km, down a single straight road. In ideal traffic conditions it takes about 15 minutes by bus, during rush hour it’s closer to 30 minutes (which is the same amount of time it would take to walk), last night it took me nearly an hour.

About 15 minutes was spent just waiting for a bus, which isn’t entirely unusual. Even though the stop is next to a subway station, and leads to a major residential area, there is only one bus route connecting the two. To me it seems to be a combination of rapid development and poor planning.

China changes so quickly that 5-10 years worth of change at US speeds often happens in just one or two years. In the last ten years private car ownership has exploded, and most cities simply do not have the roads to handle them. I don’t fault Chinese leaders for not being able to keep up with this growth, and as we saw earlier this week, rushing infrastructure projects is not a viable option.

Car ownership is both a status symbol and an object of convenience. If the buses in Nanjing were as regular and comfortable as the ones found in Hong Kong, more people would be willing to take them. As it stands I often have to wait 20 minutes or more for a bus, making it an unreliable hassle.

So when you combine inefficient public transportation (~10% of the problem), narrow roads (70%), and tens of thousands of new drivers driving with Chinese characteristics (20%), traffic can rapidly spiral out of control. When packed on a bus with more than 50 other passengers, the traffic seems that much worse.

So yesterday once I finally boarded the bus and saw that we were hardly moving, I realized I should have walked home. For the first 10 minutes, I was mildly annoyed at the boy grabbing the rail directly over my head in a way that made me hunch over. The next 10 minutes was spent trying to enjoy some music in an effort to remain calm on the now steamy bus. After 30 minutes, I was pretty angry that I still had 3 of the 6 stops left to go.

Then I saw something so ridiculous that I started laughing and looking around to see if anyone else had seen the same thing. In front of the provincial gov’t offices, there were nearly 50 black cars (mostly Audi’s and other high end brands) all with gov’t license plates parked along the already narrow street, each manned by a driver waiting to whisk some bureaucrat home for the evening.  The gov’t employees had created a massive bottleneck with their fleet of chauffeured sedans.

Never had I seen gov’t waste so clearly with my own eyes. Not only is it foolish to have so many cars displayed openly, but when their excess actually forces the rest of us to sit in a traffic jam for nearly an hour, it seems like the perfect way to foment dissent.

Chinese citizens have been pushing for years to get local governments to open up their books and show exactly how much is spent on vehicles, banquets and trips abroad (with little progress). Yesterday it seemed like we just needed a Blue Book and a calculator.

There’s No Bureaucracy Like Chinese Bureaucracy

It seems in the last few years in the US the fear of “Big Gov’t” has been enough to draw large crowds to the Tea Party. Apparently these people have never been to China. The idea of small gov’t in China would be almost heretical here in the Middle Kingdom, where there are 5 levels of gov’t compared to the US’s 3. Bureaucracy though isn’t limited to China’s bloated gov’t, it bogs down every business and transaction.

For example during the Swine Flu scare a few years ago, teachers and students were not allowed off campus without permission. For one teacher, who had daily lessons on a different campus, this meant an hour of filing paper work every day for TWO MONTHS! She had to go to one office to pick up the paper, than bring it to the campus nurse who would check her temperature and make a note, then she would bring that note to another office that would put the official medical stamp on the paper, before she could return to the English department that would make the final decision as to whether or not her reason was good enough to leave campus.

At the hospital I work at we have a small memorial hall that houses a few exhibits of old medical equipment. If you want to see it, you need to contact me and provide me with a copy of your CV and a detailed explanation of why you want to visit it. I will then copy that information onto the appropriate form, and submit it to the hospital president for his seal of approval.

These are just a few of the examples of the seemingly limitless forms of bureaucracy in China that hamper China’s efficiency. I would think that the hospital’s president has more important things to do than micromanage the museum. I would hope that a teacher with the Swine flu would have the common sense to stay at home. As we keep digging we start to get to the real issue.

Bureaucracy is a helpful defense against blame. After all when 7 other people had to stamp the document along with you, each shares a bit of the liability. If I let you into the Memorial hall directly and something got broken (I really don’t know what could possibly go wrong in there), it would be my fault. However, if the president himself approved your visit, than I am completely free of responsibility for your actions, and the president is above criticism.

The same is true in the school. If the teacher got sick they would show all of the stamps and signatures that proved she was healthy when she left. The only possible explanation would be that one of the students from outside of the campus gave it to her. Or at least that’s what the thinking seems to be.

During the height of swine flu a friend’s brother came to China. He cleared the health quarantine with no problems. Upon arriving at the school, the leaders flipped out and ordered that he and any other foreigner who he had met with leave the campus for two weeks (It didn’t matter that he had met some Chinese teachers, they were allowed to stay). Needless to say he didn’t even have a cold, and the leaders hadn’t seen him when they made this decision. Since they had made the decision collectively though, there was no one leader that could be held responsible.

It’s hard to say which came first: bureaucracy or passing the blame, but in modern China these two go hand in hand in ensuring inefficiency.

This post was delayed because of a broken internet connection at the airport hotel in Shanghai. When I called the front desk, they passed me to house keeping, who passed me to the internet person who couldn’t speak English. After another attempt they patched me through another 3 people before I could talk with the manager. The manager told me that it was a problem from the Internet company so it was not the hotel’s fault, and that it might be working tomorrow morning.