Slap on the wrist not enough for lying officials

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-25 08:02

Two months ago, Ye Dachuan told a visiting delegation that the city of Liupanshui had been "steady in maintaining grade-two air quality all year around," ranking it "the best in Guizhou Province." Besides, "there is no coal and chemical plant in its area of jurisdiction and no industrial enterprise in the area protected for water resources."

This sounded like a nice statement from a deputy mayor to the inspection team dispatched by the State Council. However, the inspectors didn't buy it and instead conducted an on-site investigation.

They found that the city had launched a power station project without due process; there were hazards of water pollution, even for drinking water; and there were more than 30 coking plants in operation.

The result was astounding not only because of the severity of the pollution, but because of the brazenness of Deputy Mayor Ye's lies. To borrow a sentence from Mark Twain: "No high-minded man, no man of right feeling, can contemplate the lumbering and slovenly lying of the present day without grieving to see a noble art so prostituted."

Indeed, this is an ideal illustration of the "decay of the art of lying." The master satirist would certainly have put Ye in the category of "ignorant uncultivated liar."

I'm not trying to justify what Ye did by suggesting that it was only how he did it that was wrong. As every kid knows while growing up, it is morally unacceptable to tell lies.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a kid's world. There are occasions when almost everyone has to be economical with the truth. But most people do distinguish between white lies that are meant to prevent embarrassment and vicious lies that are meant to harm.

I guess Ye did not intend to harm anyone deliberately, but by withholding the truth from higher authorities he thwarted their efforts to correctly gauge the environmental damage in the city and therefore to make policies and take measures to minimize it. As a direct result of his misrepresentation, the city's people would be hurt.

It is obvious that he lied for selfish reasons to shirk responsibility and keep his official position.

But lying is not restricted to one occupation or one culture. The executives at Enron cooked the books and fleeced shareholders of billions of dollars. I dare say that when the temptation is big enough, most people would fall prey to it, and they would comfort themselves with all kinds of excuses.

That's why there should be a mechanism in place to curb government officials or officers of public companies from attempts at fabrication, and there should be a punishment for those who engage in it. Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron CEO, got 24 years in jail. But Ye got little more than a slap on the wrist when the Ministry of Supervision and the State Environmental Protection Administration openly reprimanded him.

That is certainly a good start. But it will have some side effects, among which will be the elevation of "the art of lying." Saying black is white will be phased out, and quibbling will be in. If a public relations consultant gets involved, Ye would probably use words to the effect of, "Yes, we have problems, but things are improving."

By that time it'll require greater skills for us to read between the lines and figure out what the "problems" really are and how grave they are. But for the time being, government inspectors and statisticians have to make sure that facts are not distorted beyond recognition and data are not tailor-made to fit a picture-perfect design.

A quarter of a century ago, there was a stage play about an impostor who went around the country impersonating the son of a senior official. When he was arrested, he asked: "Would I have been a con man if I were indeed that person?" One thing is for sure: He would not have got the breaks he had.

Likewise, we must ask: What would have happened to the deputy mayor if he had been frank about the city's environmental woes? If he were commended for speaking the truth it is another matter whether he was responsible for causing the damage in the first place he might have no need to resort to deception.


(China Daily 11/25/2006 page4)

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