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China cracks down on 'corrupt' local government offices

Hundreds of local government offices believed to have become havens for misuse of public funds and even the jailing of disgruntled residents have been closed.

BEIJING // A central government crackdown has led to the closure of hundreds of local government offices believed to have become havens for corruption, misuse of public funds and even the jailing of disgruntled residents.

More than 600 representative offices in the capital, opened by low-level provincial administrations, have been shut down, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Yan Jirong, a professor in the School of Government at Peking University, said many local government representative offices were believed to be involved in bribing central government officials.

"They want to cut the connections the local officials use these offices to make, specifically connections with central government. There are too many offices. It's a big problem," he said.

The offices were set up to liaise with central government, although they have been accused of wasting money by expensively entertaining officials from the home area in restaurants linked to them. Many also owned apartments and hotels. Reports have suggested that, together, the offices spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

They have also served, Mr Yan said, to deal with "social movements" from the home province, in particular individuals who have travelled to the capital to present grievances to the central government.

The most sinister allegation linked to representative offices is that their guest houses have served as "black jails", detaining these petitioners.

While 625 representative offices have been closed, estimates have put the total number set up by local governments at 5,000. When private companies are included, the figure grows to 10,000.

Because provinces, rather than lower level administrations, are supposed to liaise with central government over funding and policy, many representative offices are seen as unnecessary.

A list released by China's State Council, reported by Xinhua, has revealed that of the offices closed, eight were for major cities, 374 were for counties, which are two steps down from provinces in the administrative hierarchy, 189 for local government departments and 54 for development zones and other local government organisations.

The crackdown announced on Wednesday comes after the release in January of a circular by the State Council, China's cabinet, calling for representative offices to either be closed or cut costs.

"Applications to keep the offices open were strictly reviewed. The offices whose management was disorderly or unclear were eliminated, as were the ones that did not function satisfactorily," an official from the Government Offices Administration of the State Council said, quoted by Xinhua.

Mr Yan said it was the structure of the government system in China that resulted in so many lobbying offices being created.

"So many local officials want to get resources from the central government," he said.

In particular, the large amount of discretion that central government officials have in where funds are allocated has been cited as a factor, as it causes local governments to undertake intensive lobbying to avoid missing out.

Liu Shanying from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said problems are exacerbated by the fact the central authorities are taking a greater share of tax revenues from local governments.

"That's why they've been short of funds and feeling the need to come to the capital to ask the central government for more money," he said.

He acknowledged the actual number of representative offices was much greater than the number closed.

"But, after all, you have to solve the problem patiently, step by step," he said.

Officials allowed all the 50 offices from China's provinces or special economic zones to remain open, along with 296 from major cities. Those allowed to remain open have been told they must operate in a "high-quality, frugal and efficient" manner.

Audits must be carried out annually and spot checks will be done by the central government.

Closed offices have been told they must not re-open in another form, although reports indicate some have already done so, without even signs to indicate their location.

Despite allegations of wastefulness, some restaurants linked to representative offices are regarded as among the best in the city.

Chuan Ban, within the Beijing representative office of Sichuan province, is described by the listings magazine City Weekend as "nearly universally acknowledged as the best Sichuan eating in Beijing".

dbardsley@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Associated Press