You are as happy as the government says you are


Cash prizes for the “right answer”

Early this month, the people of Shiqiao, a town in Nanjing’s Pukou District, received a list of sixteen questions and answers:

Item 3: “What was your total family income in 2008? Answer: more than 8,000 yuan.”

Item 16: “If you were to measure happiness on a 100-point scale, how many points would you give yourself? Answer: between 90 and 100.”

Local officials distributed the answer sheet so that residents would be able to give the “correct” responses to a provincial telephone survey designed to measure whether or not the town had achieved its targets for improving the people’s well-being.

After a suspicious telephone outage affected the homes of poorer rural families on the morning of December 20, the day the survey was to take place, many members of the public complained to the Nanjing Morning Post, which sent a reporter to investigate.

The rest of the story, including an interview the reporter conducted with a town vice-secretary:

Shiqiao’s Spoiled “Well-Being Survey”

by Chen Wen / NMP

Villager Hu Changjun said that village officials had given these answers to every household with a telephone around twenty days before, telling them that if they received a survey call from the provincial Statistics Bureau on December 20, they were supposed to respond with the standard answers. “The village officials also sent word around that anyone who was chosen for the survey and who gave the standard answers would receive a 2,000 yuan prize.”

Middle schools take the day off so students can help their parents answer the phone

Local schools declared a holiday on December 20, and teachers informed students that they should stay home that morning to answer survey questions using the responses supplied by the village.

“Students here usually attend class on Saturday, so it was unusual this time for all schools had the day off. Teachers instructed the students to stay at home and answer survey calls,” said villager Zhang Xiaobing. Zhang’s son is in his second year at Shiqiao Middle School. On Friday night, he said that he didn’t have to go to school the next day: the school had told them to stay at home to answer the survey for their parents because they were concerned that parents with insufficient education would make mistakes in reading off the standard answers.

One villager said, “Building a well-off society is closely connected to our children, so studying should be the most important thing for them. Giving them a day off to answer the phone is ridiculous.”

Officials “contract” with villagers to guarantee they say the right thing

Zhang Xiaobing’s uncle is a village official. The village arranged for each official to “contract” with thirty households, and to guarantee that the “contracted” households would supply the standard answers during the inspection without anything going wrong, each official had to hand over a sum of money as a deposit.

“If the rural households you had contracted didn’t make any errors during the inspection, the deposit would be returned to you. If something happened, not only would they keep the deposit, but you’d be fined as well, and you might be fired,” Zhang Xiaobing said. He told the reporter that village officials first contracted with their relatives’ households, guiding the responses of the villagers through family ties. “I was one of the households contracted to my uncle. It was because of him, not for any other reason, that I would have given the standard answers.”

The reporter then went to the village committee where, because it was the weekend, no officials could be found. An old man at the gate corroborated Zhang’s account, but he also said that the request had come from town and that it was not the village officials’ idea.

They wanted a chance for the prize money, but there was a strange problem with the phones

Although the annual income of Li Xiaohu’s family is less than the standard answer of 8,000 yuan, the 2,000-yuan prize had him hoping that he would be picked for the survey.

“Three days ago, my wife made a point of telling me to move our phone, because she was worried that we wouldn’t hear it ringing in the living room while we were in the bedroom. So I put the phone in the bedroom. We didn’t go anywhere after getting up early on the morning of the 20th. We just sat at home and waited for a call. But oddly, our telephone didn’t work.” Li said that at a little after 7:00 that morning, he tried calling the line from his mobile phone to make sure that there weren’t any problems. The call rang on the mobile, but there was no sound on the phone in their home. “It was like no one was answering the phone. But it never even rang.”

Li thought it was a problem with his phone, so he hurried over to the town telecom office, where he found that more than 100 other people had had the same problem. “The families that had telephone problems were mostly not very well off, or were people who often had issues with village officials. We realized that this wasn’t a problem with our phones: someone was worried that we’d say something bad during a survey call.” Li said that they argued with the staff of the telecom office but were told that service wouldn’t be restored until the afternoon, by which time the well-being survey had already concluded.

Li said that five households in his village group had encountered telephone problems that day, and that none of the five were very well-off. When they called up the village leadership later on, they were told that there had been a problem with the telephone lines.

Questioning a town official

In Shiqiao, I spoke with Vice-Secretary Zhu, who said that the town had passed the well-being inspection. The results of the telephone survey conducted by the provincial Statistics Bureau showed a satisfaction index of over 96% (60% is passing).

Reporter: I noticed that every household here has a government-issued set of sample questions and answers to the well-being survey. When village officials passed them out, they told the people that they had to use these responses. Why was this done?

Secretary Zhu: Achieving overall well-being was a major task for Pukou District this year, so like other towns, we treated this inspection very seriously to make sure we’d pass. The samples were for educational purposes, so that people wouldn’t make mistakes if they received a survey call.

Reporter: In the course of our news gathering, people told us that if they were chosen, and if they used the standard answers, they’d get 2,000 yuan per household. Is that they case?

Zhu: This is the first I’ve heard of that. Our government wouldn’t do that, so it may have been lower-level village officials who made those promises to guarantee that they’d pass the inspection.

Reporter: The samples I saw had one item that asked residents to answer that their 2008 annual income was above 8,000 yuan. However, I believe that this figure is out of reach for many villagers. How did you come up with it?

Zhu: We have statistical data. The average annual income for Shiqiao is actually above 9,000 yuan, so 8,000 yuan is a conservative figure. Of course, this is an average number for the entire town, not something that every household has to reach. To calculate annual income, it’s not just salary earned from work — you’ve got to include the grain harvest, vegetables, and a pig or cow that farmers raise

Reporter: For many rural households, this looks like inflated accounting. A pig, for example, is worth 1,000 yuan once it’s raised. You count that as income. But there’s also the cost of raising it which, once you subtract it out, may leave a household with just 200 yuan in income. Or a cow, which is worth 5,000 yuan, may take four or five years to raise, so isn’t it a little inappropriate to figure that into the annual income for 2008?

Zhu: Um…

Reporter: For this inspection, village officials put up deposit money and had rural households contracted to them. Was this the case?

Zhu: Now that is true. It’s called owning your responsibility. The well-being inspection was a major task for our district, so we couldn’t permit any mishaps. The town asked for deposits from village officials to keep them responsible. The village officials thought of all sorts of ways to pass the inspection, and taking on contracts with rural households was one very important method. Say I’m a village official: I take on thirty households and guarantee that those thirty households will not have any problems during the inspection. Once we passed the inspection, we’d return the deposits to the officials.

Reporter: Many villagers said that on the day of the inspection, some poorer families suddenly discovered that their telephones weren’t working. They said that this was done by the telecom office at the government’s request out of fear that those poor families would tell the truth on the phone and influence the inspection. We’d like to know whether the government really asked for those lines to be cut.

Zhu: No, the government would never do that. The phones could really have had problems on that day.

Reporter: Schools were given the day off, and teachers asked students to answer survey phone calls for their parents. The schools in your town previously held classes on Saturday. Were schools let out at the government’s request?

Zhu: The 20th was on a weekend, so schools shouldn’t have had classes. As for whether teachers asked students to answer the phone for their parents, it’s possible that the administration did this to cooperate with the inspection, but that had nothing to do with our government.

At Tianshan Online, commentator Deng Ziqing suggested that Shiqiao is not an isolated case:

And it’s not just local governments that like to come up with “standard answers” to combat inspections from their superiors. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions bring out standard answers when they encounter similar situations. Take my own university: last year for a Department of Education evaluation, the school held mass training of teachers and students so that any questions posed by the experts could be given speedy, satisfactory answers. Typically, whenever there’s a higher-level inspection, the school will try to send out the best-looking, most articulate, and most knowledgeable teachers and students to “take care” of them. Won’t this result in an investigation pleasing to both the school and the inspection team?

Similarly, Shiqiao’s “contracts” with households that had telephones, the standard answers it sent out, and its prize money all contribute to a “win-win” situation that few people would be willing to turn down. It’d be strange only if the place turned out not to be well-off after all!

Finally, I call for the government to first consider if it’s acting purely for appearances’ sake when it conducts inspections of its subordinates. At the same time, performances for appearances’ sake by their subordinates must be stamped out and punished. Otherwise, your good intentions to understand how the people feel will only result in their harm.

Update (2008.12.27): ESWN translates a reaction by Guo Yukuan, who compares the survey to bogus agricultural work reports in the 60s:

I have some old books here about rural studies in the 1960’s. From reading those books, you will have no idea that hundreds of thousands of people were starving to death at the time. Every single commune reported that production levels rose again and the situation was never better. Even Mao Zedong who came from a peasant background was confounded by the sight of children sitting on the tightly packed crop.

What created this sort of absurdity? Aren’t the grassroots cadres afraid of being caught cheating? Which great leader and brilliant emperor in history did not demand their underlings to speak the truth? Yet it is hard to find cases of bureaucrats getting their heads cut off for daring to lie about how great the situation was. Conversely, when people like Peng Dehuai tried to speak the truth, they met with bad endings.

This would seem to be an obvious comparison but for the fact that the contribution of inflated statistics to the massive famine of the early sixties is often doubted as a fabrication by anti-China forces, a situation that led Yang Jisheng to research historical material for the book Tombstone.

Consider the following exchange on the People Online forums:

[ID “Guxiangzhai” makes a post that quotes Guo Yukuan’s piece]

Commenter 1: Do you have any proof that the “1960 agricultural work report” was faked? There are too many people cursing the past and telling lies about it. What makes you think you’re correct?

Commenter 2: He himself said that the information was from a roadside used-book stall. It’s very likely that they were stories fabricated in Scar Literature, and they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

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