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
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
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)