Transparency and corruption – two sides of the same coin?
“The most expensive website in history” is the infamous name for the new Confucius Institute website, a name dubbed by the Chinese media and public. The Ministry of Finance recently announced the cost of the new Confucius Institutes website (here) and the new China Trade Union website. It seems to be the general consensus among the netizens that 35,200,000 RMB and 6,700,000 RMB are absolutely ridiculous amounts to be paying for a single website. A Chinese netizen, DASH, who owns a website is quoted as saying, “Any website can be made with less than 100,000 RMB.” So why are these websites costing so much? (The famous Confucius)
This is undoubtedly a case where the Chinese government has been following through on its promises of becoming more transparent, but Chinese netizens are arguing that this increase in transparency is not necessarily achieving the desired result – a decrease in corruption.
What is happening though, is that the Chinese public is utilizing this transparency to gather information and figure out: 1. Why so much money is being spent on two websites, and 2. Who specifically is behind all of it. What did they find? This website reports that the two companies who were hired to make the websites were companies created just for that purpose. In other words, they were not already well-established Internet companies that the work was outsourced to. Also, even more interesting, Hanfeng Education (full name: 五洲汉风教育科技) and Hanfeng Network, the two companies, are also located on the same floor, in the same building.
Also, iColumn reports that the National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language (NOFCL) is the organization that initiated the enterprise, is the same organization that started the business, and it’s the same organization that used the business certificate to perhaps launder money from the government into the corporate sector. In China, transferring money into the private sector is a common way for government officials to have access to government money without the same restrictions. This is what makes Chinese netizens the most suspicious, and they criticize it by it is a mother-son relationship where money can easily be moved from one place to another.
The government’s response is predictable and, as far as I know, no invoice is yet available for how the money is being spent. Yesterday, a director from the NOCFL, said in an interview that online interpretations of the new websites were not comprehensive, and did not take into account that the companies were also going to be in charge of management services, web site development planning, technical support, software development, including the development of Chinese language learning audio, video and other interactive media. The director says, “The website will eventually be made into a learning portal that will be promoted globally, this is a comprehensive project.”
While most netizens are highly critical of this project, some are optimistic of what this might bring. One blogger is hopeful about what kind of change this experiment in transparent government could affect. He says, “First, if even something this unreasonable has been made public, it seems that the government is truly becoming more transparent; secondly, there are people who are watching their actions closely, and finding black humor in the midst of it. This is commendable progress in terms of public awareness.”
The public’s investigative techniques are improving, and the government is becoming more transparent. The case of the “most expensive website in history” might be an important precedent in testing the waters for whether or not transparency and government corruption will still go hand in hand in the future. Or, it’s also possible that this transparency is only a meaningless “transparency,” and will not become any sort of effort to increase the integrity and believability of the Chinese government. In any case, there is room for improvement for both the public and the government, and the best case scenario is that this will be a process of cumulative causation.