China's official opulence

Times Staff Writer

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.

Li said no one was using the four professional snooker and billiard tables or sitting on the bright orange spectator seats around the eight pingpong tables. He said signs pointed to a shuffleboard game room and an indoor golf practice center. Officials told Li they could not show him the swimming pool because they did not have the keys. But people who have seen it say it is larger than the one at the $200-a-night Sheraton across town. Some have taken pictures of it, which Li posted on his blog before the online journal was shut down.

"Government staff are the people's servants. Why do they need a swimming pool?" Li asked. With such buildings, he added, "the government is pushing ordinary people further and further away. That is corruption. Ordinary people won't trust them because the government is using money from the blood and sweat of workers for their enjoyment."

Tanggu district is a key part of an industrial port zone. National leaders want to develop Tianjin, which lies 90 miles southeast of Beijing, into an economic powerhouse in the mold of Shanghai and Shenzhen in the south.

Like Shanghai, Tianjin reflects its colonial past, with Western architecture and sections that were once occupied by Britain, France and Germany, among other foreign powers. Under Communist rule, Tianjin for many years was burdened by hulking state-owned factories producing steel, chemicals, textiles and paper.

But in the last decade, the city's port has roared to life behind investments from giants such as Motorola Inc., Toyota Motor Corp. and Samsung Corp. Airbus said recently that it would assemble its A320 jets here.

Tianjin also happens to be the hometown of Wen Jiabao, China's premier, and the city's mayor, Dai Xianglong, is former governor of China's central bank. They and other party leaders have taken a special interest in the development of this coastal area.

But as in other Chinese cities, the rich-poor gap here is widening. Laborers complain that party cadres and bureaucrats ignore their pleas for better housing, healthcare and jobs. They say the "corruption building" is a constant reminder that their leaders don't care.

A Tanggu government spokesman dismissed criticisms that leaders were out of touch and that they were wasting taxpayer money and loafing on the job.

But Zhu Zhenming, the press director of Tanggu district, declined to comment on the amenities in the building beyond saying that the swimming pool was meant to be used as a reservoir for fire prevention.

He referred questions to the city's foreign affairs bureau, which did not respond to inquiries. In previous news releases, Tanggu district said the twin towers housed 33 government bureaus and 10 other agencies. More than 700 people work in the marble halls, it said.

On a recent afternoon, some workers were on the plush-carpeted elevators heading for the ground floor, pingpong paddles in hand. Others emerged from locker rooms, their hair dripping wet from showers. Employees at the salon said afternoons were busy. A haircut is just 60 cents for government workers, half the regular price.

Trudging across the street from the building were peasants pushing wagons filled with recyclable goods and migrant workers with heavy bags slung over their shoulders. One man in his 40s, an engineer from northeastern China, said everybody knew about the lavish facilities. "I heard it's the corruption building," he said.

A local middle-aged resident had a look of disgust on her face. She said, "We struggle to eat."

don.lee@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°