| Global Times | 2012-7-8 20:05:04
By Chen Chenchen
China's State Council confirmed on July 2 that shark fin soup will be banned from the menus of official receptions within three years.
There have been protests against shark fin soup all over the world, and regulations on commercial shark fishing have already been imposed in about 20 countries and regions. Environmentalists have hailed the plan to remove shark fin consumption from official banquets, and believe private diners will gradually follow suit.
Nevertheless in the eyes of the Chinese public, this is much more a civil morality issue than one linked to environmental protection. The official notice on shark fin consumption has been faced with a storm of criticism, not applause.
One big controversy is why it should take as long as three years for the government to issue a single ban on shark fin banquets. Sarcastic comments are spreading all over Weibo. "Sharks are heart-broken that Chinese officials can still eat their fins for the next three years," one netizen wrote.
The Chinese public is increasingly tough-minded and less tolerant of the lingering stench of corruption. In March 2011, the State Council requested 98 central departments to disclose expenditures on official receptions, trips and vehicles. Most did so within the following few months, and more than a few local governments then followed and publicized their account books.
However, the pace apparently lags behind public demand. The disclosed figures have stirred up more speculations and doubts, rather than public trust. This was actually unexpected by officials.
The Chinese public, with increasing civil awareness, demands clear details of government budgets, efficient moves to stem corruption in public spending, as well as well-functioning external supervision mechanisms.
This is why the pending ban disappoints the public. The Government Offices Administration of the State Council gave a long, ambiguous time span as to when they will issue the ban. Although it remains unknown whether local officials will come up with countermeasures to evade the ban at the dinner table, the central legislation, as the first step to restrain lavish public spending, should be efficient and forceful.
There is a deeper worry among Chinese public that this shark fin banquet ban, even if successfully legislated and enforced, barely helps in curbing the excess official receptions. On the menus of official banquets, there are other costly items like Moutai spirits, bird's nest soup, and various famous brands of cigarettes for afterward. It is depressing to imagine that the government needs to pass one after another ban to push each of these items off official banquet menus.
There are wide grey zones in official hospitality, and many officials, especially those at the local level, believe that a lack of transparency in public spending remains a tacit rule and can still be tolerated by the public. They don't realize that they should be especially cautious and earnest when it comes to public spending that the whole society is scrutinizing.
We've seen enough lessons that any indication of squandering public money could lead to a severe scandal and thus a crisis of government credibility. This is true whether it is an exposed bill from an extravagant dinner consumed by an government-affiliated association, a golden watch on the wrist of a local official, or a box of expensive cigarettes that appears in a government meeting room.
The damage to the government's reputation caused by such mistakes won't be offset by the authorities' explanations and good deeds afterward. This leaves officials no alternative but to fully stick to the law, practice government finance in the sunlight, and, most importantly, remind themselves from time to time that their everyday behavior is being attentively watched.
Only when officials' long-held mindset is changed can obscure and wasteful public spending be checked. Before that, the shark fin ban, even if it came out tomorrow, might be only a paper tiger at grass-roots official banquet tables.
The author is an opinion editor with the Global Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
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