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Holy Cow

Costly Vanity Projects Proliferate Throughout China

July 11, 2002


ANDA, China -- You think you're mad about the government wasting your hard-earned tax dollars on useless projects? Pity the poor residents of Anda, an economically depressed city of 500,000 in China's far northeast.

With most factory workers laid-off and farmers struggling to get by, the mayor of China's "hometown of milk cows" is spending more than $12 million to put up 299 life-size carved granite cows around town.

His grand scheme to invigorate Anda, in Heilongjiang province, bordering Russia and Mongolia, also includes thousands of marble bricks etched with cow figures to be inlaid in sidewalks and a new Office of Cow Culture, responsible for inventing a folk legend for each granite cow.

"The cows will attract curious travelers from all over the world who will come and talk about cow culture, eat beef banquets and buy cow products," Wang Yinghe, the city's mayor and Communist Party secretary, told the official Xinhua News Agency. "This project's benefits will last hundreds of years."

The story of Anda's granite cows is a revealing look at how local-level governance works in modern China. For officials, getting ahead means making yourself look good to those above; accountability to those below is rarely a worry.

"To put it simply, whether officials are promoted depends on what the party and government leaders think about them, not what taxpayers think about them," said Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the government-sponsored Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

And so opulent vanity projects have become pervasive. Chinese newspapers are filled with stories of cities and counties that cannot afford to pay their teachers and civil servants yet build flashy plazas, luxury villas and fancy office buildings.

In Huaibei in central China, one of the country's major coal producers, city officials have unveiled plans to build Asia's largest golf resort, with seven contiguous courses, according to the People's Daily. When an official told a press conference that an airport would be built for business tycoons to land their private jets, reporters burst out laughing.

In the port city of Tianjin, the government spent $3.6 million to erect more than 100 Roman columns. They hope to be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world's tallest columns.

And a county chief in Henan province ordered all the buildings alongside a highway and a county road painted red prior to a visit of his superiors.

Liu says the Communist Party risks a backlash.

"People will think the party doesn't care if the people live or die, and only cares about making a good impression," he said. "There is a limit to people's tolerance."

The central leadership in Beijing recognizes the problem and is trying to stop it. Premier Zhu Rongji harshly denounced excessive spending in his annual government work report earlier this year.

"We should resolutely oppose extravagance and waste," he said. He cited local officials building "ostentatious projects in order to make a good impression ... when they cannot even pay wages on time."

But it's a bit like the father telling the son to do as he says and not as he does.

Beijing has an edifice complex of its own. It is building an extravagant national theater. Designed by a French architect, it will have a titanium domed roof, an underwater entrance and will cost an estimated $326 million. Leading engineers and architects have signed petitions questioning the need for such a costly project in a developing country, yet construction goes on.

And so Anda's mayor says he is merely carrying out Beijing's wishes.

In the interview with Xinhua, Wang compared himself to the Emperor Qin Shihuang, the venerated first emperor of China who 2,000 years ago conquered neighboring states and unified them under one kingdom.

"In 500 years ... the archaeologists will discover a pile of stone cows," Wang said. "Then they will discover me. Qin Shi Huang's contributions to China included the Great Wall and the terra-cotta warriors. Later generations are still enjoying them."

The granite cows of Anda come in all shapes and styles. There's an artistic cow, a cartoonish cow, even a cubist cow. The granite was shipped from Shandong province, almost 1,000 miles to the south, as were the workers who are carving them.

Anda residents are steaming. Factories have privatized or shut down, leaving most people out of work. Farmers have had to sell most of their cows, once the source of their livelihood, because the local milk powder factory rarely paid them on time.

"It's totally ridiculous," fumed Liu Gang, a laid-off factory worker now forced to operate a pedicab to feed his family. "Anda has so many people who can barely afford to eat. If foreigners come to visit, they'll laugh so hard their teeth will fall out."

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