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Budget-busting vanity projects in counties have been used by officials to profit and raise their profile, but now wasteful functionaries are being targeted

By Tong Xizhong Updated Oct.1

Former Jiangyong County Party secretary Zhou Lifu stands trial for bribery and corruption over vanity projects, Chenzhou City Intermediate People’s Court, Hunan Province, June 29, 2022

On June 29, Chenzhou City Intermediate People’s Court in Hunan Province held hearings on former Jiangyong County Party secretary Zhou Lifu’s corruption case. He was accused of taking over 57 million yuan (US$8.43m) in bribes from 2010 to April 2021 across several government posts since July 2016. He also engaged in rampant nepotism, where he assigned relatives contracts for government-funded projects. 
Part of the bribes and nepotism were related to large-scale vanity projects in Jiangyong County, which was listed as impoverished until 2017. The CPC Hunan Provincial Commission for Discipline Inspection put Zhou under investigation on April 19, 2021. On October 15 that year, he was “double dismissed,” which means being fired and expelled from the post and the Party. In the official announcement, he was accused of raising government debt by constructing enormous projects within his jurisdiction in order to accumulate his personal political attainments. For example, a cultural square in the county cost up to 60 million yuan (US$8.9m), including its 12 marble carved totem poles which cost 12 million yuan (US$1.8m).  

A government official from Jiangyong County told NewsChina the square is three kilometers from the county center and occupies an area of 6,667 square meters. He added that the exact cost of building these projects had never been announced publicly.  

In recent years, many county-level officials removed from their posts had promoted vanity projects aimed both at burnishing their own image and amassing wealth, even in already impoverished areas. This caused heavy indebtedness. Peng Xinlin, an anti-corruption expert and a professor at the Institute of Criminal Law at Beijing Normal University, told NewsChina that a distorted view of political achievements is the root cause. “Some officials intended to make so-called political assets through having [constructed] visibly remarkable political achievements, which is indeed abusing power, pursuing short-term benefits and ignoring the interests of the country and the people. 

Bad Image Projects 
Zhou confessed he wanted to make himself stand out among his peer officials by building large projects to impress his superiors. He admitted some projects were launched without sufficient research.  

Furthermore, Zhou tried to profit from these projects. He offered contracts to relatives or close friends, through which he got kickbacks of up to 10 million yuan (US$1.48m). Within five years, Zhou increased government debt to invest in 32 large projects, each of which amounted up to 10 million yuan. Among these, 16 projects were contracted by people he directly nominated. In contrast to these expensive investments, annual fiscal revenue in Jiangyong County is only 300 million yuan (US$44.41m).  

Within the six months from April to September 2021, three county-level Party secretaries, including Zhou Lifu, in Yongzhou, which administers Jiangyong County, were fired because of corruption involving vanity projects. In February, Yongzhou city government announced a yearlong campaign among officials to a reflect upon the corruption misdeeds of certain officials.  

Vanity projects, often referred to in Chinese media as image projects, have been a problem in recent years. According to a documentary by the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), in September 2018, Fuyang Municipal Party Committee in Anhui Province ordered the 153 townships and villages within its jurisdiction to improve the exterior appearances of its buildings. One of them, Gaotai Township, Funan County, notorious for its harsh environment and underdeveloped infrastructure, spent 7.99 million yuan (US$1.18m) to whitewash all of the houses.  

Despite repeated criticism of the provincial and central authorities against the whitewashing campaign, the town proceeded with the project. In June 2019, Li Ping, Fuyang municipal Party secretary, was dismissed, after receiving several warnings and criticisms from higher authorities.  

According to reports in May 2015 by The Paper, Fengshan County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, a State-level impoverished county, allegedly spent 53.5 million yuan (US$7.91m), or half the county’s annual fiscal revenue, to carve two phoenixes on a cliff face. After a local government investigation, it was disclosed that Huang Deyi, former Party secretary of Fengshan County, embezzled public funds for natural disaster prevention and control to have the phoenix murals carved, at an actual cost of 2 million yuan (US$300,000).  

On July 2, during a provincial level working conference, Zheng Zhajie, Party secretary of Anhui Province, criticized local officials over vanity projects. “For example, a less-developed county has built a 12- lane road, but very few cars ever use the road,” Zhen said. He said it results from distorted political achievements and wrong decision-making by some local officials. 

People Judge 
The central government has already made public notifications prohibiting vanity projects and ministries have issued notifications requiring all local governments to learn from previous lessons and take effective measures to investigate misdeeds.  

In December 2019, the central government issued a notification, pointing out that the emerging phenomenon of vanity projects was becoming widespread in some places, especially in poor and underdeveloped areas, which not only wastes national financial resources and social resources but also encourages officials’ misdeeds.  

Zhu Lijia, a professor at the Party School of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, told NewsChina that the fundamental problem is how local officials view their political achievements. Many “image projects” are sold as projects that can improve local people’s livelihood, and are built on the pretext that they will enhance the people’s overall happiness or a city’s reputation.  

According to Zhu, some officials believe that a vanity project is a fast way to show off their achievements to seek promotion. He noted local officials are also motivated to pursue vanity projects to seek personal profits through maneuvering project funds.  

Professor Peng pointed out that because projects often need tremendous investment, it leaves room for corruption where officials can benefit through specific connections.  

Zhu suggested the first step is to strengthen democratic decision-making while making a rational, regulated and effective county-level fiscal budget. To reform the evaluation criteria for local officials, local government should not only focus on GDP, but adopt a comprehensive evaluation system for officials. Also, local budgets and project construction should be put under stricter scrutiny, with public and media participation. 

Peng Xinlin believes that the entire supervision process should be strengthened, from project approval to completion. The official assessment system should be improved. “Officials who waste public funds to seek short-term benefits should be held accountable quickly and in a serious manner,” he said.  

The CCDI stated in an article published in February 2021 that performance evaluations of local officials should shift from focusing on GDP and engineering projects to public satisfaction and local peoples’ recognition of officials’ behavior and achievements. Whether local officials are competent should be judged by the people they represent. The article also said that preventative measures should be adopted before vanity projects begin. Once building starts, it is usually too late to correct it and it wastes resources.

The pictured 57.3-meter-tall statue of Guan Gong (the Chinese god of war) cost 172.9 million yuan (US$25.6m), Jingzhou, Hubei Province, October 3, 2020. It cost another 155.5 million (US$22.9m) to move to the Jingzhou suburbs after it was deemed an illegal structure