Local officials play make-and-break game

Updated: 2012-06-14 13:25

By Huang Xiangyang (China Daily)

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It is a little inconvenient walking to work these days. The pavement along the street to my office has been cordoned off with cones as workers dig out the concrete bricks to replace them with new ones. Pedestrians have to vie for walking space on the street alongside the bicycles, scooters and cars that whizz past. The feeling is awful.

To be frank, I cannot see much difference between the old and new bricks, except that the new ones are lighter in color. But so what? They won't make the walk smoother or more pleasant. Actually I like the old ones better as they give me a sense of age and mellowness, which in a way reflects Beijing's quintessential spirit.

The only reason I can think of for changing the bricks is GDP.

Seldom have I read a China-related business story without it informing me it has become the world's second-largest economy after the United States in terms of GDP. It is a laurel China has won in a decades-long international race for greatness.

Like most of my fellow citizens, I used to feel proud as I saw China's GDP figures edge up to overtake one country after another - Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. It seems inevitable that the country will surpass the US in "overall economic strength" in the foreseeable future. I never bothered to delve into what was actually behind these dazzling figures and how they had been achieved. I just saw them as a magic wand with whose touch China has metamorphosed into an economic superpower. It reminds me of what hormones do in turning a thin and weak teenage boy into a brawny and masculine young man.

That sense of pride has gone. Thanks to some local government officials, I have started to look at GDP from another perspective and see the ugly side of it.

Take Shenyang for example. The capital of Liaoning province set a national record early this month by blowing up an 800-million-yuan ($125.57 million) stadium - once the largest in Asia - to make way for a central business district. The 380,000-square-meter all-steel stadium, with a soccer field and 36,000 seats, was put into use just nine years ago. Now it will be remembered as the largest single building ever erased with a bang of dynamite in China.

The city government cited poor management of the stadium, which had basically "left it abandoned", and said its demolition will ensure "efficient use and development of land resources". What they forgot to mention is that despite the world's economic woes, the city's GDP figure will surely continue to surge thanks to this cycle of demolition and construction.

Today China is the world's largest construction site. It guzzles nearly half of the world's total annual cement and steel production, and produces 2 billion square meters in newly added building space each year. But according to Qiu Baoxing, vice-minister of construction, most of China's buildings will stand no longer than 30 years, as compared to more than 100 years in developed countries.

I don't know how much of our GDP comes from this make-and-break game played by some local officials. But I do know it not only wastes resources and causes irreversible environmental damage, it also inevitably provides a hotbed for rampant corruption. It's been said that "there is at least one corrupt official for each kilometer of highway built", after 62 officials in Liaoning were convicted of corruption in 2003 relating to the construction of a 50-km highway linking Shenyang and Shanhaiguan.

But it is a game some officials like to play because it boosts local GDP, which has long been a key criteria for promotion, despite Beijing's repeated calls for green growth.

Now I understand why the mayor of Zhanjiang was so elated after the city's plan to build a steel mill was approved by central authorities last month that he kissed the document giving the green light in front of the cameras. And I understand why the Nanjing city government chopped down the 10-year-old camphor trees lining its boulevard to the airport only to replace them with camphor saplings; and why officials in Mianyang, Sichuan province, leveled a modern middle school built just two years ago with donations from Hong Kong after the May 12 earthquake in 2008, so that a commercial property project could proceed. In a land where worship of GDP still prevails, the appetite for a binge of demolition and construction can never be sated.

But the economic prosperity built on these figures is nothing but a mirage.

The author is a writer with China Daily. E-mail: huangxiangyang@chinadaily.com.cn