Time for hard look at use of government funds for ‘poverty-stricken counties’

By Li Haihong Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-2 21:03:01

A "poverty-stricken county" in Northeast China has built itself a luxurious headquarters worth almost 100 million yuan ($16.52 million). This has been one of the most discussed news items on social networking websites in China recently.

Hailun county, in Heilongjiang Province, has used poverty-relief funds from the central government to build its new official building. The building covers 20,000 square meters, and consists of a 13-story main building, two five-story sub-wings, with a total of 820 office rooms and over 40 meeting rooms.

Such news is not so new. A quick search online throws up many other examples. For example, a cluster of several luxurious office buildings was constructed in Taiqian county, Henan province, last year, which is a famous "poverty-stricken county." The most ironic thing is the striking contrast between the luxurious buildings and a nearby middle school with broken windows and cramped dormitories.

"Poverty-stricken counties" are those that are verified as so poor that the central government must provide them with direct financial assistance. However, this is not an embarrassing title for some county heads, but a lucrative way to obtain funding.

Many questions must be answered. First of all, how do "poverty-stricken counties" get that title?

Statistics from the Hailun county government show that, in 2010, average annual income per rural resident was 6,695 yuan ($1,090). However, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, the national average was 5,919 yuan, and it was only 3,273 yuan on average for the 592 monitored poverty-stricken counties.

How can Hailun county win the title of "poverty-stricken county" with twice the income of really poor counties?  Has the provincial poverty-alleviation office conducted an in-depth investigation on the application submitted by Hailun county officials for this status?

Furthermore, is there any supervision on how "poverty-stricken counties" spend the poverty-relief funds? Do both the provincial and central poverty-alleviation offices monitor how the poverty-relief funding is spent in each place?

Although the central government has offered specific guidelines on how to use poverty-relief funds, misuse is still common. And the allocation and uses of the funds are badly supervised. Citizens barely get public information on how the funds are spent, and don't know how to check it.

We have seen some moves from the authorities. Since 2007, the central government has reportedly punished more than 20 officials from poor inland provinces for spending extravagant amounts of money on new government buildings, as part of Beijing's anti-corruption push. The punishments ranged from internal Party warnings to sackings. However, without an effective official monitoring system, this cannot hack away at the roots of corruption.

The central government must not ignore this hotbed of corruption and power abuse, especially misdeeds packaged in the wrapping paper of charity. Every penny of poverty relief should go to the needy.

Maybe we need to reconsider the whole poverty-relief funding system.  There are many poverty-stricken counties that stay on the list one year after another, receiving money from the central government again and again. From a certain perspective, they become "lazy" mentally, and rely on external help, rather than striving to achieve things themselves. It might be better for the government to teach them how to fish rather than simply offering fish all the time.

The author is a freelance writer based in Shanghai. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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