BEIJING — After years of building massive and lavish new government office buildings — including ones inspired by the White House, Versailles and the U.S. Capitol — China is saying enough is enough.
Central authorities have issued a five-year moratorium on the construction of new government offices, training centers and hotels, the latest step in a frugality drive that also includes cutbacks on banquets, travel and other perks for bureaucrats.
According to the State Council, China's cabinet, the new policy issued late Tuesday is important for "building a clean government and … maintaining the image of the Communist Party." Prime Minister Li Keqiang promised such a moratorium in his first speech after taking office in March, and Tuesday's directive lays out specific dos and don'ts.
China's ostentatious official buildings have been denounced by citizen whistle-blowers and inspired national photo contests. In a country where officials have long been judged by how well they meet development targets, though, the quickest way to inflate growth figures has been to build something — the grander the better.
The new construction ban is partially a public relations move aimed at quelling public discontent over self-indulgent officials. But as growth slows, it is also in line with the central government's efforts to curb wasteful spending, address the heavy debt loads of local governments, and allow market forces to play a greater role in the economy.
For urban planners, the new policy may also raise significant questions in the coming years.
The nation is in the midst of a massive campaign aimed at moving 250 million rural residents into cities by 2025, part of an effort to boost economic growth by turning subsistence farmers into urban-dwelling consumers. Whether this can be done without new government office buildings remains unclear.
Some experts say the moratorium could help reduce corruption and move China away from inefficient, government-orchestrated development into more organic, market-driven construction patterns.
"In the last 30 years, the construction of government buildings has been one way of driving growth," said Peng Jianbo of the Tsinghua Urban Design and Planning Institute in Beijing. "Such buildings are one source of blood supply for cities, but we need to create other sources."
In many areas, local officials have gotten extremely cozy with property developers, seizing farmland and other property and selling it at cut rates in exchange for funds for government buildings.
The operating expenses and maintenance costs for such structures are frequently beyond the budgets of local governments, creating incentives for further corruption, noted Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Beijing's Renmin University.
"It's very surprising that they can even keep the electricity and air conditioning on in some of these buildings," he said. "That forces them to find other 'creative ways' to supplement their local budgets."
The new directive bars the Communist Party and government organizations from receiving any form of construction sponsorship or donations, and says officials with multiple offices should be limited to just one.
In a number of cities, these government edifices and associated structures have become massive white elephants. The Inner Mongolian city of Ordos became infamous after it built a new town called Kangbashi, intended for 300,000 residents, but by 2010 only had attracted about 30,000. Even today, the area is still trying to lure people to live there.
Beyond halting new construction, the measures announced Tuesday also forbid restoring or expanding office compounds under "the guise of building repair," and prohibit renovations to buildings "with reception functions, such as those related to accommodation, meetings and catering."
Although the new directive offers quite specific guidelines, Zhang noted that China has long had rules on office space for officials. He questioned how strongly the latest measures would be enforced.
"All these kinds of rules have existed before, but these officials keep finding ways around them," he said. "As long as the government structure doesn't change, will things really change?"
Some property owners fear the new policy could threaten their real estate investments.
In a comment posted on the Internet forum of soufun.com, one of the leading online real estate services in China, a man named Wang expressed concerns over chatter that the Jiangxi provincial government might cancel its plan to move some of its offices into an area known as Nine Dragon Lake in the capital, Nanchang.
Wang recently bought an apartment in the area, and he said he chose it for one reason: The provincial government said it would move there soon.
"If I live there in the future, all the related infrastructure will be very complete because the government will be there," he said he believed. Now, he said, he "can't sit calmly anymore ... I want to know the truth."