China Austerity Drive Becomes a Joke

February 25, 2013, 8:38 PM

China Austerity Drive Becomes a Joke

China’s leaders have been talking tough about graft, greed and gross extravagance again. One sign they’re serious this time: Their willingness to have a little fun with it.

Up until recently, the austerity campaign was suitably severe. There was tough talk from Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, who told a gathering of party heavyweights in November that corruption threatened their grip on power. He called for less pomp and ceremony for officials touring the countryside and urged comrades to make do with a little less banqueting. They should stick to four dishes and a soup and finish their food or else, he said.

Similar refrains have regularly appeared in the party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. A recent commentary (in Chinese) said cadres need to avoid waste, hold only meetings that have a real purpose and observe the New Year holiday in a simple and modest fashion. “The people are looking forward to this – and they will be watching critically,” it warned.

But to help spread the party gospel even further, Beijing recently decided to take a more populist approach — making these themes part of the entertainment on CCTV’s widely watched Lunar New Year’s Eve gala – or the “Chun Wan Hui.”

In one of the CCTV New Year skits, comic Guo Degang took a swipe at the ex-Shaanxi work safety official Yang Dacai, dubbed the “Brother Watch” after photos of him appeared on the Internet sporting an array of expensive watches that normally would exceed a government salary. Mr Guo, who didn’t mention the sacked official by name, bragged he wore a hefty gold watch on his right wrist and a dozen more all the way up his left arm. Asked if it wasn’t risky wearing them he said: “I’m not afraid of wearing them and I’m not afraid of letting people see them,” he said, adding he had shortened his left suit sleeve so he could show them all off (in Chinese).

Still in character, he bragged of splashing out on a wedding banquet, inviting enough guests to fill 100 tables. He feigned outrage at apparently being upstaged by a banquet next door with 200 tables. On closer inspection, that banquet was paid for with public money, so it wasn’t a fair contest, he insisted.

In another sketch, TV actor Sun Tao portrayed an upright but harried building security guard who fends off a stream of self-important people who insist they must gain access to the office building where he works, even though they don’t have a proper ID. An exasperated Mr. Sun finally explodes in misguided anger, wrongly accusing an official of trying to bribe him. “You think that you have power and can embezzle state money? You think you have four ID cards so you can buy houses?”

While the accusation turns out to be misguided in this case, it is a clear allusion to House Sister — an ex-bank official was taken into police custody after it was discovered she had bought more than 40 homes in Beijing alone, many of them using borrowed IDs.

The antics were all CCTV make-believe but they had their serious side and they suggest that the party is aware of public anger just below the surface. Making light of its own dismal track record on fighting corruption – on prime time television – might convince some viewers the Communist Party is trying to address some intractable problems.

But it remains to be seen whether this recent show of urgency lasts. If history is any guide, the commitment to clamping down on excess could turn out to be a bit like sleeve lengths – something that can change with the season.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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