HUANGPING, China — All the students at Luolang Elementary School, a yellow-and-orange concrete structure off a winding mountain road in southern China, know the key rules: Do not run in the halls. Take your seat before the bell rings. Raise your hand to ask a question.
And oh, yes: Salute every passing car on your way to and from school.
Education officials promoted the saluting edict to reduce traffic accidents and teach children courtesy.
) Critics, who have posted thousands of negative comments about the policy on China’s electronic bulletin boards, beg to differ. “This is just pitiful,” wrote one in a post last year. Only inept officials would burden children with such a requirement rather than install speed bumps, others insisted.
This is hardly the only nation where local bureaucrats sometimes run a bit too free. But in China, where many local officials are less than well trained and only the party can eject them from office, local governments’ dubious edicts are common enough that skewering them has become a favorite pastime of China’s Web users. Even the state-run media join in, although they rarely report who was behind the rules or suggest that they indicate a lack of competence to govern.
Often, the skewering gets results. In April, one county in Hubei Province in central China drew nationwide ridicule after officials ordered civil servants and employees of state-owned companies to buy a total of 23,000 packs of the province’s brand of cigarettes every year. Departments whose employees failed to buy enough cigarettes or bought other Chinese brands would be fined, the media reported.
County officials said the increased revenue from the cigarette tax would buoy the local economy. After several weeks of embarrassment, Gongan County officials posted a short message on the government’s Web site that read: “We have decided to remove this edict.”
Officials of Hanchuan, a city in Hubei Province, tried a similar ploy, with the same effect. Determined to boost the local brand of baijiu, a sinus-clearing distilled clear liquor, they ordered state workers to buy a total of about $300,000 worth in a year. Reporters calculated that each employee would have had to buy three bottles a day to meet the quota. The rule was later rescinded.
Another county in Guizhou Province in southern China compelled state workers last year to help inflate the number of tourists visiting the ruins of an ancient village. Every government office was ordered to organize field trips to the site so the county could report 5,000 visitors within two months.
The involuntary visitors had to take several buses to get to a village 20 miles from the county seat. From there, they hired motorcycles to carry them another nine miles down dirt roads, the newspaper Guangzhou Daily reported.
The Guizhou Commercial News reported that some government offices were left unattended while state employees served as tourists. The next month that order, too, was repealed.
But a 2003 regulation that bars male officials in Sichuan Province from hiring female secretaries may still be on the books. China Youth Daily reported then that the official who initiated the regulation wanted “to ensure that work can be carried out.”
An official in the Communist Party’s provincial office said in an interview that she was not aware of a written rule.
No one ever precisely pinned down the origin of an order this May to kill all dogs in the town of Heihe, on the Russian border in the far northwest. Media reports suggested one town official became irate after a dog bit him as he strolled along a river. But the official refused to confirm that.
Town leaders organized teams of police officers and ordered them to beat to death any dog who ventured into a public space. China National Radio, a state-run agency, broadcast the citizens’ outrage. “When we need to walk our dogs now, we have to first go out and look for cops,” one dog owner lamented.
Scholars say the proliferation of such regulations stems from a lack of professionalism among some local officials.
The Communist Party has been trying in recent years to correct these problems by providing better training and more channels for public feedback. Party schools that groom officials now stress administrative skills as well as ideology. Job evaluations are supposed to be based on concrete results.
Some local officials who used regulations to bilk the public have been dealt with harshly. The party secretary of Feicheng, a town in northeastern China, was fired after imposing a fine of $73 on any farmer who cut down a corn stalk without a license. Farmers complained that they could not harvest their corn without fear of being penalized.
Officials of China’s 637,001 villages seem especially prone to excess regulatory zeal. Until being overruled by higher-ups in 2005, for instance, officials of a village in Chongqing forced unmarried women to pass a chastity test before receiving compensation for farmland appropriated by the government. They argued that only virgins deserved compensation.
In comparison, Huangping County’s policy of roadside salutes is arguably benign. Education officials say compliance is strictly voluntary. Asked whether they follow it, elementary students here tend to burst into nervous giggles.
The rule’s purpose is twofold: to keep children safer on the county’s corkscrew mountain roads and to teach manners. Nearly 30 schools are located along roads without sidewalks or speed bumps. Signs posting speed limits are few and far between; virtually no signs indicate a school nearby.
Long Guoping, deputy chief of the county education bureau, said those measures were coming. “Little by little, the government is installing them,” he said. In the meantime, the salute “might avoid some accidents,” he said. “It allows the drivers to notice the children and the children to notice the drivers.”
Luo Rongmei, who teaches first grade at Luolong Elementary School, is all for it. “Since they started saluting there has not been one traffic accident,” she said, as the students ran and shouted in the yard.
Guo Yuozhang, 63, whose grandson attends the Loulong school, said he was more ambivalent. If the cars come from one direction, “that is not too bad,” said.
Cars coming in both directions is a bigger hassle. “Sometimes they are just turning in circles and they get kind of stuck,” he said. He spun around to illustrate the point, smiling slyly.