Tentacles of graft reach the cultural industry

By Ni Tao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, August 7, 2012
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Zhang Yimou [File photo]

Corruption cases in China never ensnare just a few random victims, they cause a lot of collateral damage.

There's no better place to look than the latest trouble engulfing the Ministry of Railways if one is to understand the spreading effects of corruption.

It all began with a wildly expensive film. Late last month, it was reported that the Ministry of Railways had commissioned an obscure entertainment company to make a public relations film called "Chinese Railways," at a staggering cost of 18.5 million yuan (US$2.9 million).

The company that was awarded the project didn't go through any competitive bidding process. This award invited an investigation by national auditors, which surprisingly uncovered deals threatening the good name of a celebrity director.

Zhang Yimou, the accomplished director behind the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, was hired to design the film's plot.

For only a few ideas that art critics describe as unbelievably "banal and coarse" for Zhang's sophisticated taste, the director charged 2.5 million yuan, almost four times the estimated true cost of the film's production.

Having been accused of greed, Zhang was quick to justify himself. In an interview with Xinhua, he complained that the producers adopted only a third of his ideas, and went on to imply that he was willing to give up some compensation that was deemed unmerited.

At any cost, Zhang's remuneration, though unjustifiably large, isn't the bone of contention. Apart from the money that went to the director and the entertainment firm, totaling about 11.5 million yuan, another 7 million yuan was unaccounted for. Where has the money gone? The answer is that it may well have ended up in some railway ministry officials' pockets as kickbacks. The revelation of the pricy film coincided with the disgrace of a corrupt official couple.

Xinhua reported on Tuesday that Chen Yihan and Liu Ruiyang were being investigated for serious disciplinary violations. Chen, an ex-publicity official with the railway ministry, was probed for her involvement in the publicity film.

Investigators searched the couple's home in Beijing and found 10 million yuan in cash and the deeds to nine pieces of property, with a combined value way beyond the modest income of cadres like them.

And since it was impossible for an official at Chen's level to amass the ill-gotten gains on her own, the probe naturally turned to Liu, her husband, who is also a senior official with the Ministry of Railways. On the same day, ombudsmen searched his office and found a big stash of passbooks and pre-paid shopping cards.

Fall from grace

The couple's fall from grace has been jokingly summed up in this saying, "Investigators came for shrimp but instead caught a big fish."

The fallout from the publicity film is yet another illustration of how endemic corruption is. And although this is no breaking news to those inured to the extent of corruption in this country, there indeed are some disturbing signs that corruption has crept into a new area ? culture.

It isn't just the Ministry of Railways that readily throws money around on some image projects. In the ministry's case, it does have some urgent PR to do, after last year's calamitous train crash, but apparently this latest film scandal is again proof of its bungled efforts.

Nationwide, nearly all provinces and municipalities are gripped by a frenzy to make publicity films and advertise themselves. To the degree that some impoverished locales also join others in lavishing money on PR flacks, the frenzy has become absurd.

For instance, last year Tongdao County, Hunan Province, invested 2.5 million yuan, a fortieth of its annual fiscal revenue, to shoot a movie aimed at promoting its tourism industry, though it has scarce sightseeing resources.With the thriving of cultural industry and the call to promote culture, all these PR efforts are disguised under the convenient cloak of "culture." None of this "culture," however, jibes with the emphasis on thrift and modesty, central to the traditional Chinese value system.

People's Daily editorialized on Thursday that except for overseas PR campaigns, domestic governments, central or local, have no need for self-promotion. The public is the only judge of their performance.

The embarrassing truth is that with no effective public scrutiny over budgets, the "judging" public is clueless as to how to do its job.

So we may never know how many palms are greased over the dull publicity films for which we are duly billed.

The downfall of the Ministry of Railways couple may be "accidental," but too many similar "accidents" reveal a pattern ? where there is money and power is unchecked, sleaze will grow. Culture, which has been officially elevated to the height of an industry to be tapped, has everything it takes to be turned into a cash cow for some shady individuals.

Culture in China is surely a big business, but for whom?

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