What China's Talking About Today: A Mayor Kisses His Town's Steel Contract

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Mayor Wang Zhongbing got a little carried away when Zhanjiang was awarded a contract to produce steel and iron.

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Mayor Wang Zhongbing smooches the fated document. (mzsites.com).

In a nation where people are used to seeing government leaders' stoic faces behind the tinted windows of black Audis and hearing their droning speeches at national conventions, one mayor has gained accidental fame for a brief, impulsive show of emotion.

When Wang Zhongbing, the mayor of the southern port city Zhanjiang in Guangdong province, walked out of a central government building in Beijing on May 24, holding an official document that granted his city approval to establish a 70-billion RMB iron and steel production base -- a project the local government had petitioned for 34 years -- he was so full of emotion he could barely speak. Hands trembling, he brought the document to his lips and kissed the fresh ink on the pages. His crew, waiting just outside gate, broke into cheers. A cameraman from the local newspaper clicked the shutter, snapping a photo that both captured the moment's immense sense of victory and, later, shortened it.

As soon as the photo went online, it was picked up by web users and posted on Weibo, China's twitter-style social network. Tens of thousands of netizens commented, few of them joining the mayor in celebration.

"With the overproduction of steel and iron right now, still?" asked Weibo user hugodatouwen, who found the news hard to believe.

"Instead of approving a couple of teaching programs in mountain villages or water conservation programs, you are approving a steel and iron plan," renjianxianxiang fumed. "While asking us poor people to donate to charity, you spent billions with a wave of pen!"

Other Weibo users, apparently locals from Mayor Wang's area, worried that they might never see the blue ocean or clear sky again. "Once the beautiful coastal city Zhanjiang is introduced to the highly polluting steel industry, it will definitely not be a decision that common citizens will celebrate," Miss Noble lamented. "Enjoy Zhanjiang while you can!"

The photo and backlash have underscored some of the economic challenges the country faces, as the newest data reveals a significant slowdown of the long-robust GDP growth, especially in major sectors such as retail and construction. The low level of consumer confidence, combined with restrictive real-estate purchasing policies meant to force air out of the nation's housing bubble, have sent housing prices plunging in major cities, greatly reducing China's voracious appetite for construction materials such as iron ore and copper. Environmental perils have also taken their toll, further limiting the country's ability to grow. Despite all this, the pressure on local officials to keep up economic growth is still, clearly, enormous.

But perhaps instead of pressure, some netizens point out on Weibo, local officials see prize.

"70 billion is like a gold mountain. No wonder he lost control," duoduodiai wrote about the Zhanjiang mayor.

"Now he is finally going to get promoted," Weibo user critical spirit prophesied. "From this moment, his land will be burning with labor and roaring with machines, all lively and vibrant. And even better if he gets to demolish some old residences and build new plants. That's doubling the growth of GDP!"

For local residents like Peter_huanghuangxiangyaogelidaren, it can be tougher to hold a light-hearted tone. "All these years, one by one you have come and gone," she wrote of the succession of mayors of Zhanjiang. "The bridges are up, your wallets are full, and you rise in rank. Now you start to make iron and steel at my front door, boosting your career but sacrificing our sky!"

In what was perhaps an effort to address as well as channel the overwhelming condemnation on Chinese social media over the mayor's photo, Xinhua, China's official news agency published a finger-wagging editorial on the event:

"A government should not govern by winning approval from higher levels, or be driven purely by the impulse to make political achievement," it read. "Instead of kissing the document, it should listen to the people."

Party's over.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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