No Excuse for the Excuses Officials Hand Us

Putting the right spin on one’s words is a science, and civil servants with fiduciary responsibility have to master this subject. It helps to shift blame to someone else; a child, a spouse, or a convenient foreigner will do.

Several weeks ago Yang Dacai, head of the Work Safety Department in Shaanxi province, drew outrage across China because he smiled while visiting the scene of a disastrous highway accident.

He called it an “accidental expression.” Chinese Internet users dissatisfied with this explanation did some website research and found that Yang owned five luxury-brand watches. While he insisted they were all bought with his own money, web surfers discovered even more watches, each one more expensive than the last.

Yang responded that his annual salary was around 170,000 to 180,000 yuan. When pushed to explain further, Yang came up with the line: “My son also adores watches. We occasionally share the same ones.”

Meanwhile, it was reported that Fang Daguo, a political commissar of Guangzhou’s Armed Forces Department, recently beat up an airline hostess working for China Southern Airlines. This event triggered another huge display of online denunciations.

Fang said, through the propaganda department of the district he works for, that it was his wife who had had a conflict with the flight attendant; he himself did not participate in the incident.

Then came the exposure of the Hefei Children’s Welfare Institute, which spent a huge sum on a Mercedes-Benz, just to keep it in a garage. The director of the institute justified his action by saying, “The car is mainly used when there are foreign guests who come to Hefei to adopt a child.”

Son, wife, and foreign guest. These are three trump cards. But they did not silence the public.

On the contrary, these stories inspired media outlets and Internet users to pursue the truth even more relentlessly. Indeed, it was a Chinese student attending school far away in Africa who exposed Fang as a liar after he happened to get a tip while traveling on the same plane as a political commissar.

What’s especially intriguing is that after every exposure of this kind, government officials are always in a hurry to obfuscate or brazenly lie.

Why? Because China lacks a system for disclosing the assets of government officials like Yang. As a result, he could justify his behavior by pointing to his son.

Moreover, official agencies don’t have fiscal transparency. Even a charity with funny finances can lay responsibility on foreigners.

And because bureaucrats shield one another, and authorities are always in a hurry to cover up scandals and maintain stability, people such as Fang do not hesitate to lie.

As a consequence, the public recognizes irrational excuses when they are obviously full of holes. And people in the public spotlight engage in a battle of wits against the general public.

Instead of this situation, there should be immediate, clear, logical, and vigorous investigation and accountability mechanisms.

In the face of a crisis, civil servants can dare say anything that strikes their fancy because they think the public pressure is but temporary. All they need to do is find an excuse and change the subject. Once an incident calms down and the questions dry up, all fears of being held accountable simply vanish.

What the public needs most, though, is clarity, not excuses or lies. Who will raise the right questions and stop these absurd public spectacles? Unless someone or some agency steps up to the task, these events will continue to damage the government’s credibility and the very foundation of our society.

Zhang Fan is a Caixin staff reporter.