China is no stranger to fakes; the country has long enjoyed a reputation for counterfeited goods. It is, therefore, rather surprising that the discovery of fake Moutai, the famous liquor, made the front page of many newspapers around the country.
But this case proved a big deal thanks to the victims: two government liaison offices. Indeed, what grabbed the headlines was the exorbitant amount of money they had paid for the fake booze. According to media reports, the government liaison offices of Xuchang and Luohe in Henan spent Rmb660,000 ($96,552) on 777 bottles of what they believed to be genuine Moutai. On average, that’s Rmb849 a bottle – equivalent to almost 18% of the average (annual) income for a farmer.
The case only came to light after the fake Moutai did not pass muster with guests. The bottles were later found to be fake and the Beijing police arrested the culprits.
The hoodwinked offices form part of a chain of over 10,000 “liaison offices” set up by regional governments in the 1950s. The original intent was to have an on-the-ground presence in Beijing to lobby higher-level authorities for a greater share of government budgets and preferential policies. But improvements in transportation and communications have led some to question whether the offices still have a raison d’etre.
According to the two somewhat embarassed liaison offices, the Moutai was not intended for their own use. They were purchased at the request of a hotel and a paper-making company back home. But some remain sceptical. Moutai is often used for entertaining governmental agencies and senior officials, says Shanghai Daily.
‘A glass of Moutai here; a brown bag there…’ Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology says: “Such facilities [liaison offices] have increasingly become a hotbed for corruption because of lack of supervision.”
In 2002, there was a high profile example of just that. Wang Fuyou, the former director of the liaison office for Hebei province was sentenced to life in jail for taking bribes and embezzling money.
Few doubt the system badly needs an overhaul. For a start, these liaison offices don’t come cheap. It is reckoned that they suck up Rmb20 billion every year, says the South China Morning Post. But where does the money come from? Apparently from local government agencies and major state-owned enterprises. However, it remains unclear how the money is spent. These offices usually occupy prime locations in Beijing, with lavish entertainment facilities. In fact, many call the liaison offices the “party central”.
In a pathbreaking move the government of Weifang – a city in Shandong province – has shut down all 11 of its liaison offices around the country, citing “budgetary constraints” as the reason. But will others follow its example? Or is it too hard to shake the party habit?
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