China's new mandarins forced to give up their mobiles

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The Independent Online
IT WAS BAD enough when the crackdowns were launched on excessive banqueting by officials and their purchases of luxurious foreign cars. But China's campaign for "honest government" has now struck even deeper into the heart of any cadre's notion of self-worth. A quota system has been imposed on central government departments for that talisman of modern China - the mobile phone.

So yesterday, in the first auction of its kind, 105 confiscated mobile phones went under the hammer in Peking, to the delight of hundreds of ordinary folk who crammed into the auction room looking for a bargain.

One prospective purchaser, a lawyer, was interested in more than just a cheap deal. "If I buy one of the mobile phones, I can go to re-register it in my name and find out who used to own it. I can check how much money the cadre used to spend on his phone bills. I want to know how much the government wastes."

It was at the end of June that the administrative bureau of the State Council decreed that central government offices could have mobile phones, but only a limited number. The extras had to be handed in, under the stipulation on "practicing strict economy and prohibiting waste". The despair among mid-ranking cadres was palpable, the loss of face unbearable as they were demoted to use of a mere pager.

Such personal tragedy, however, could be turned to the public good. By the planned 10am start yesterday, about 700 prospective mobile phone purchasers were struggling to enter a 200-seat room at the Zhong Lian International Auction Company. "It's the first time we have got so many people at an auction," said a sweating Wang Jie, the deputy manager. "Ordinary people are rather interested in mobile phones." Indeed; there are 20 million mobile phone users in China, double the number just over one year ago.

With bidding starting at just 500 yuan (pounds 40) for the older models, the crowds were impatient yesterday for the sale to start. "I want to buy 10 phones for my company," said one man. "I've got my eye on one with a lucky phone number, for myself," said another. "Start! Start! Start!", chanted the audience, crammed so tightly into the room that no-one could move.

In the end, it was all postponed until the afternoon, when only those who had paid to register to bid were allowed back into the auction room. The bidding was brisk, and more such auctions are planned. "Don't worry, there are plenty more mobiles where these came from," said the organiser.

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