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As China vows austerity, Giant brass fish devours $11 million

Chris Buckley
Sunday, 13 Oct 2013 | 9:24 AM ET
A giant brass puffer fish tower is displayed at a square to celebrate the upcoming the 8th Horticultural Exposition of Jiangsu Province, in Yangzhong, east Chinas Jiangsu province, 21 September 2013.
AP
A giant brass puffer fish tower is displayed at a square to celebrate the upcoming the 8th Horticultural Exposition of Jiangsu Province, in Yangzhong, east Chinas Jiangsu province, 21 September 2013.

HONG KONG — Chinese Communist Party leaders' vows of a new era of humble austerity in government may have met their most exotic adversary yet: an $11 million, 2,300-ton, 295-foot-long puffer fish.

The brass-clad statue, which shimmers golden in the sunlight and switches into a garish light show at night, was built by the city of Yangzhong, in Jiangsu Province in eastern China, to lure visitors to a monthlong gardening expo that opened in September. The "puffer fish tower" has an elevator to take visitors up the equivalent of 15 stories into the sculpture's belly to view the lush scenery near the Yangtze River.

But news reports and pictures online of the creature, floating on scaffolding with its mouth agape and eyes glowing green, have prompted many Chinese citizens to wonder: Why devote 70 million renminbi, about $11.4 million, of government money for a giant metal fish, especially when the party leader, Xi Jinping, has demanded an end to frivolous spending on officials' vanity projects?

"Just how much of the 70 million went into officials' pockets?" said one of the many mordantly outraged comments on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese microblog service that is similar to Twitter. "The sculpture is so that we'll have something to pay our respects to after the puffer fish becomes extinct," said another.

The sculpture garnered nationwide attention last month, after a Jiangsu newspaper, Modern Express, described its costs and size, citing Yangzhong government officials. The project is flamboyant, even by the bigger-is-better expectations of Chinese state-sponsored art. It uses 8,920 brass plates for the fish scales and is covered in lights that can pulsate in changing colors at night, the newspaper reported.

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"A miracle of the architectural world," the Yangzhong government Web site exclaimed. "This is also an extreme rarity in the whole world."

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That may well be true, but not everyone sees it as a virtue. Chinese news outlets said the brass and steel for the fish cost about $1.7 million, raising questions about where the rest of the money went. Construction of the fish tower began on a previously isolated and undeveloped river island in March, four months after Mr. Xi was appointed party leader.

"There will have to be more openness about whether there was any overstatement in the puffer fish tower project," the report in Modern Express said. Other Chinese media comments were less restrained.

"Yangzhong in Jiangsu is known as the Little Venice of the Yangtze River," said a commentary on the Web site of Yangtze News, a newspaper published in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. "How could its image be a bloated puffer fish? For a vanity project that might apply for a place in the Guinness World Records, 70 million was thrown in without so much as a blink of the eye."

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But China is speckled with outlandish works of official art that vie with even a giant, glow-in-the-dark puffer fish for attention and outrage.

Critics berated a county in Guizhou Province for building "the world's biggest teapot," a 243-foot-high teapot-shaped tower, complete with spout, that was part of a $13 million project.

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In Henan Province, in central China, a government-backed charity has been accused of corruption in spending about $19.6 million on a vast, unsightly sculpture of Song Qingling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, a revered founder of modern China. Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, is also home to a sculpture of two pigs in a frolicking embrace. From certain angles, the pigs might appear to be mating.

The river puffer fish is an expensive delicacy in parts of Jiangsu Province, and Yangzhong officials have promoted the pleasures of eating it, despite the risks of poisoning if it is not properly prepared.

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"Enjoy the rich puffer fish culture of Yangzhong, savor the delicious fare of the puffer fish," a city official said at a news conference in December, according to the city's Web site.

Officials who answered calls to the Yangzhong city propaganda office claimed ignorance about the sculpture or suggested calling other offices, which gave similar responses.

But after the uproar, the Yangzhong government offered a new explanation for the monument. A city official denied that money had been misspent, and said the puffer fish tower was built as a plea to save the environment, said the state-run China News Service. The official told the news service that the metal fish is "a call to protect the ecological resources of the Yangtze River."

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