BEIJING – A Chinese governor's rare admission of having given a misleading account about the plight of coal miners has prompted new laments among the public about pervasive deception practiced by China's bureaucracy, with even state media calling on officials to be more truthful.
Heilongjiang Gov. Lu Hao's assertion that 80,000 miners at his province's largest mining company had been fully paid triggered an angry protest by the workers. The governor soon backtracked and pledged to pay back wages.
His candor won some applause, but it also reignited questions online and even in state media about how he could have been so easily misinformed on such an important matter.
"There's hardly any thread of authenticity these days in the reports from subordinates to their supervisors in the government, and the superiors shall by no means believe any of those reports," wrote Hua Yuxi, a Chinese blogger. "Their statistics, their work summaries, and their achievements are all fully inflated."
The incident came just months after the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that officials in China's northeast admitted they had inflated economic data, apparently to meet targets and impress their superiors.
In one case, a county in Liaoning province inflated its fiscal revenue by 847 million yuan ($131 million) for 2013, state auditors reported last year. Xinhua said local governments had cooked the books to cover up fabricated data on everything from economic growth to investments, consumption, trade, urban projects and urban incomes, before investigators and cooperating officials uncovered the scam.
"Although officials at all levels know the dangers of inflated statistics, they feel they have no choice when they feel the pressure from performance evaluation, regional competition and promotions for themselves," Xinhua said.
The deceptions harken back to some of the darkest periods in recent Chinese history, particularly the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward, when communes were rapidly formed and the communist government vowed to surpass the West economically and show the superiority of its socialist system.
In answering to Beijing's hopes and demands, village cadres across the country massively inflated their reported yields of wheat and rice and the lies were trumpeted in state media. The lesson was costly as the government took possession of what were thought to be vast grain surpluses, contributing to a famine that claimed an estimated 30 million lives.
Six decades on, discussion of that tragedy remains largely taboo and official deceptions show no sign of departing the ways of Mao Zedong and other communist elites who considered that the truth had to be malleable in the service of the socialist cause.
Even Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has reportedly spoken of his distrust of official information. Quoted in a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, Li, then a provincial Communist Party secretary, described Chinese economic statistics as "man-made" and "for reference only," saying he preferred to look at raw data such as electricity consumption, bank loans and the cargo volume moved by railways.
No less than the party's flagship newspaper, the People's Daily, reported last year that local cadres in an unnamed Chinese village ordered children to drape themselves in white fertilizer bags and pretend to be a herd of sheep to please higher ranking officials on a poverty reduction inspection tour.
Then came the gaffe by Lu, who was speaking during the annual national legislature in Beijing on the challenges of orderly reducing the payrolls of the province's largest publicly owned mining company, Longmay Mining Holding Group Co., Ltd., which has been hemorrhaging cash and cannot make timely payments to its more than 200,000 employees.
Lu claimed Longmay made sure that 80,000 miners weren't owed "even a cent." The remarks seemed aimed at showing that Longmay and the provincial leadership were meeting the central government's expectations for competently handling economic challenges.
Carried in state media, Lu's remarks infuriated Longmay miners, who said they hadn't been paid in six months. Thousands of them and their families took to the streets on March 12 to demand back pay.
The same day, Lu's office admitted his error, saying he'd been misinformed. It issued a stern warning demanding officials tell the truth in briefing provincial leaders about important information and vowed to punish those less forthcoming.
But critics are skeptical.
Without the checks of a free press, local officials feel secure in passing upward false data to ensure a positive evaluation, Sun Liping, a professor at prestigious Tsinghua University, wrote on his personal microblog.
"A key is to have another feedback system, especially the press freedom," Sun wrote. The system's ability to distort or just plain delete information "actually hurts the people and hurts the country."