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Last Updated: Monday, 12 November 2007, 16:16 GMT
Rural China's office politics
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Henan

People's Bank of China building, Gushi
Beijing has introduced rules against lavish official buildings

On the outskirts of the main town in one of China's poorest counties, a series of opulent buildings is slowly rising up from the earth.

These half-finished structures will eventually house the various government departments of Gushi county in Henan province.

But the local government is being criticised because it is spending a large chunk of the county's annual budget on the building projects.

It is just this kind of situation Beijing wanted to avoid when it banned local governments from building lavish offices earlier this year.

Gushi, Henan's most populous county, is predominantly rural, with nearly 90% of its 1.6 million people living in villages.

Although China's economic boom has reached the county, farmers have not benefited as much as urban residents.

Low living standards

Villagers' average income last year was just 3,251 yuan ($436, 209).

Even the local government paints a depressing picture of living standards for ordinary people, reporting that a third lack safe drinking water.

In several southern areas, farmers are being relocated because of a lack of clean water, no electricity and poor transport links.

Map

Many local people have had to leave their villages and travel to China's booming big cities to find work, sending the money they earn back home to relatives.

Despite this poverty, the local government is building itself a series of new, grand office buildings on the outskirts of the county town.

The centre-piece is the "administration service centre", a gigantic compound made up of six blocks built around a central square.

According to the Economic Information Daily, a national state-run newspaper, it is costing more than 100 million yuan to build.

The same newspaper says the county's annual revenue is just 260 million yuan.

And the local government's main office is not the only new public building going up on the western edge of town.

There is a museum, dedicated to tracing local people's roots, and a nearly-finished office for the bureau of labour and social security.

A new building for the land and resources administration is also planned, and the local People's Bank of China branch looks like the US Capitol building.

'Exaggerated budget'

Not surprisingly, local officials are reluctant to talk about the projects.

Cao Benguo, an official with the county's publicity department, was visibly uncomfortably when asked about the scheme by the BBC.

Typical village home
You should ask the county leaders why they are building these luxurious buildings while we live like this
Local farmer

He said the projects would bring together all government departments, currently scattered around the county town, in one place.

"It's very inconvenient if people don't know where to find us," he explained, although the current government headquarters is in the town centre.

He added that the media had exaggerated the budget for the work.

It is only costing 30 million yuan, Mr Cao said, although he did not say whether this was for one building or all of them.

He declined to answer any further questions about the scheme.

Local anger

Farmers living in Banliyuan village, about half an hour's drive south of the county town, know little of the building projects.

"We are just farmers. We do not know anything," said villager Hu Xinghua.

But they are angry at a local administration they say does little for ordinary people.

One complaint centres on a reforestation project. Villagers say they have completed the work, but have yet to get their money.

They also complain that their village has few facilities.

Water is drawn from a well and some homes do not have electricity.

"You should ask the county leaders why they are building these luxurious buildings while we live like this," said one farmer, pointing to the dilapidated homes around him.

Village man
Most local people live on less than a $436 (209) year

Local people could perhaps be forgiven for knowing little about the new government buildings - the project is not being trumpeted by county officials.

In a keynote speech delivered earlier this year, Fang Bo, the head of the county government, promised to complete 10 major projects in 2007.

He promised to build schools, clinics and old people's homes, as well as opening roads, cleaning up water supplies and training thousands of workers.

But there was no mention of the new government buildings.

Mr Bo also promised to "oppose extravagance and waste, and concentrate limited financial resources to complete big things, practical things".

Construction halted

Opposing extravagance was one of the reasons why earlier this year Beijing sought to restrict the amount spent on local government offices.

New rules came in after a series of scandals involving corrupt local officials who built lavish office blocks that appeared to be more like five-star entertainment venues.

Government centre under construction
Officials have kept quiet about the building project

Perhaps Beijing has belatedly enforced its new regulations in Gushi because work on many of the county's new government offices has now stopped.

Rusty scaffolding surrounds the centre-piece building, workers have disappeared and towering cranes sit idle.

Local construction workers provide another reason for the break in work - they say the county has run out of money.

But whatever the reason, it almost certainly has nothing to do with the opinions of ordinary people in the county.

A foreman at one of the few government construction sites that are still working gave voice to the weary resignation expressed by many local people.

"When ordinary people speak out, it doesn't add up to anything," he said.





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