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Government Compound Or Luxury Resort?

Seeing is believing? This goes much deeper than that.

Eighty-seven million dollars of investment, approximately 82 acres of land, an "ancient tree garden," a man-made lake, a rockery, six stylish office buildings, a thousand-seat convention center… Could this be a palatial resort?

This is the office compound of the not-so-affluent district government of Huiji, on the outskirts of Henan Province’s capital city Zhengzhou.

Opulent District Government Compound

Surrounded by a moat, the compound sits on an 82-acre landscape filled with more than 3,700 trees. Nearly 900 of the trees are ancient; three of them are over 1,000 years old, and dozens are over 500 years old. You can find over 30 varieties, such as papaya, sweet osmanthus, Chinese tallow tree, ginkgo, American royal purple, silk tree, and magnolia in this small forest. Besides the man-made lake, the compound also has nine acres of lawn ornamented by two gigantic boulders weighing 60-80 tons that were shipped in. There are also a tennis court, a basketball court, and other recreational facilities.

Outside of the front entrance is a five-acre square, flanked by two rows of expensive trees shipped in from afar. Situated in the middle is a statue named "Children of the Great River." The square is big enough to build an elementary school on, but the white and black marble décor makes it a bit too extravagant for that purpose.

This resort-like compound is a perfect place to forget about the crowds and stress of the city.

Officials Say the Compound Was Built for the People

It is said that the U.S. White House sits on an 18-acre lot. It consists of the main building and the East and West Wings. The three-story building has 132 rooms, the biggest of which is the East Room, which can host more than 200 guests.

You could put almost five White Houses on the Huiji government compound.

When the compound got attention in the press, the owners of the compound downplayed its grandiose scale. The public relations director of the district propaganda office said, "We are hardly number 1. There is a municipal government compound that occupies more than 260 acres, much bigger than ours."{mospagebreak}

Although this statistic needs to be verified, it’s without a doubt that Huiji District is not the only local communist government that has built a luxurious office compound. Affluent local governments along China’s coastline have raced to erect luxurious office buildings. Some of them were modeled on the White House or Zhongnanhai, China’s central government compound. Inland regions with fewer resources have no intention of missing out on the fun and are following in the footsteps of their rich comrades.

So why are these local governments so keen on building opulent office compounds? The reason may be a mix of personal interest and business.

Construction has always been a hotbed for corruption in China. There is even this saying in China: "Buildings go up, officials fall." Recently the Tianjin Maritime Court Building scandal brought down a series of corrupt officials who were involved in graft and embezzlement during the construction of this $12 million building.

As for business, it’s all about power and authority. Thousands of years of feudalism did not disappear without leaving some deep marks in China’s officialdom. Historical government buildings—towering architecture, wide entrances, deep hallways, and huge office desks—spell "importance" and "authority." Such structures psychologically dwarf the commoners who dare to enter.

Obviously the ancient influence has left its mark in the minds of today’s Chinese officials, especially those from the rural areas. The more palatial the building, the more daring the leader; the more luxurious the decorations, the more accomplished the leader; the more magnificent the style, the higher the authority. Material objects, such as swanky office buildings and luxurious sedans, are symbols of power and authority.

Huiji government officials claim that it’s the people who are benefiting from the opulent office buildings. They’ve even gone out of their way to prove this by engraving the Mao-style slogan "Serve the People" on a stone in a prominent location on the compound. Yet, taking advantage of the power and spending taxpayers’ money to build these complexes is hardly a service the commoners are seeing.

This compound is so controversial that it has generated anger and debate. Local residents and TV pundits alike have raised pointed questions that have triggered an uproar over corruption and mismanagement in local government. Just how swanky does the local government office need to be? How can a district government that has just come under a budget deficit and with revenue of US$24 million, justify spending US$84 million to build this huge, extravagant headquarters next to the small, underdeveloped villages it governs?

Helen Chou is a writer based in New York.