let them eat cake

These gilded government buildings explain exactly why Beijing is banning new ones

July 24, 2013
July 24, 2013

China’s Communist Party took another swipe at excessive government spending late on Tuesday, with a five-year ban on the construction of state buildings. “We really must use our limited funds and resources for the development of the economy and the improvement of people’s lives,” said the State Council.

But the ban may be difficult to carry out, given that authorities are building dozens of new cities every year as well as expanding emerging ones in pursuit of another policy priority: inspiring more spending on services and goods within the country by putting more residents in urban centers. China’s urbanization plan—the Chinese word for it is literally  “small city-ization”—should require the building of at least the occasional government building. According to Xinhua, the directive allows restoration for buildings that are so dated they pose safety problems, although it bars restoring buildings “with reception functions” (read: banquet halls).

The crackdown is all part of a wider effort to eliminate corruption and excess at both the upper and the lower levels of government, which President Xi Jinping calls “tigers” and “flies.” Over-the-top government buildings have become a hallmark of Chinese development over the years. As a point of pride for local governments, they may be hard to get rid of. On more than one occasion Chinese officials and entrepreneurs with egos to massage have even built near-replicas of the White House (which actually tend to look more like DC’s Capitol building), such as this 30 million yuan ($4.28 million) one in the eastern Chinese city of Fuyang. The official who built it was eventually executed for corruption after a former friend blew the whistle (not that the building is exactly subtle) and met his own suspicious end in the process.

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A view of the government office building in Fuyang, east China.(Getty Images / China Photos)
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Harmony Clock Tower, the biggest mechanical clock tower in the world, in Ganzhou city cost $45 milion(AP Photo)

China’s gigantic state-owned enterprises also appear to be included in the blanket ban, perhaps with gilded monstrosities like Harbin Pharmaceutical’s office complex based on Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles. The outside of their main office is not that excessively opulent, but the company drew criticism for one office building’s striking golden interior, intricate decoration, antique furniture, and chandeliers. The example is particularly poignant given the ongoing bribery investigation of GlaxoSmithKline, triggered by concern over escalating drugs prices.

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The headquarters of Harbin Pharmaceuticals.(Imaginechina via AP Images)
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Jinan City in Shandong province has the largest municipal government office building in China.(AP Photo)

The heavily indebted city of Loudi, in Hunan Province, has also faced criticism over its extravagant construction projects, which include an Olympic stadium even though there are no games scheduled. The city’s government complex is also nicknamed “the White House,” a property so large that even state-controlled media have been critical. The Global Times reported in May that the office space for one administrative committee was so large that each person had 453 square meters to work in. The complex’s three main buildings are connected by corridors that are similar to the Chinese character for “king.”

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The Loudi White House.(Adam Dean/Bloomberg)
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63.75 million yuan (US$10 million) on a lavish government building while its annual fiscal revenue was only 172 million with a balance of just 210,000 yuan. Wangjiang County government used 12.13 hectares of farmland to build its grandiose office building of 43,600 square meters, about eight times the size of the White House, Xinhua News Agency said.(AP Photo / Imageinchina)

China is certainly not the only country to have spent a fortune constructing government digs, but netizen reactions to photograph collections of state buildings have mostly been angry, particularly as many Chinese local governments are choking in debt while some officials take meetings in a mock Oval Office. In an odd twist of economic logic, Beijing is instead spending $32 billion on high speed rail that nobody uses anyway.

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