Chinese Zoo Appeals for Food Donations Amid Government Budget Crisis

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Earlier this month, an unusual appeal was issued by a Chinese wildlife conservation group, the Endangered Species Fund. The fund called for volunteers to donate food to animals, suffering from hunger, housed at a zoo within Dongshan Park in the northern province of Liaoning. Run by the local government, the zoo was reportedly on the brink of financial ruin and unable to feed its inmates.

The Fund, through its official Weibo account post, pleaded for immediate attention towards the situation at the zoo. The park’s bear cubs were in dire need of nourishment, a mare was nearing birth with her food supply slashed by half, and the zoo workers had gone unpaid for six months.

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According to the fund, the zoo – home to three sika deer, six black bears, 10 alpacas, and hundreds of monkeys and birds – hadn’t received any state funds for six months. The zoo’s lack of admission charges rooted its reliance on these funds. This predicament is emblematic of the financial crisis many Chinese city and provincial governments are facing, forced to cut spending while grappling with a debt mountain that has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst real estate slump the country has ever seen.

These governments have had to expend billions on mass testing and lockdowns, enforcing President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid campaign. Concurrently, the property market crisis, leading to a significant fall in land sales, has deprived these governments of crucial revenue. Consequently, they are resorting to extraordinary cash-raising tactics, such as levying fines for seemingly trivial offences like serving cucumber without a license at restaurants or for truck drivers carrying loads that break weight limit laws.

For Wafangdian, the city harboring the zoo, a local government employee was reported as attributing the funding delay to the city’s “fiscal stress.” Further concern was raised after a video emerged online showcasing a handwritten notice within the park. The notice claimed that staff payments had been on hold for six months and that the animals would soon be starved to death.

This distressing news about the zoo’s animals spread like wildfire online. The crisis was put to an end only when the city government, responding to the widespread online attention, dispatched funds for staff salaries and animal food to the zoo. Though it brought a temporary halt to this particular crisis, the ever-growing debt burden of China’s regional governments is a potent risk for the world’s second-largest economy.

The extent of borrowing by local governments could reach $9 trillion to $12 trillion, says Willy Lam, a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, considering the so-called “hidden debt” issued by local government financial vehicles. Generally used to channel funds towards infrastructure projects, these vehicles allow Chinese cities to sidestep central government borrowing restrictions.

Despite the recent monetary relief, this financial conundrum seems “out of control,” warns Lam. He highlights that “half of the income generated by local governments is used to pay the interest on their debt,” forcing them to grab any opportunity to raise funds, such as imposing harsh fines on businesses.

However, the broader impact of these punitive measures on already struggling sectors could lead to further economic downfall & social dissent, warns economic experts such as Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at SOAS University of London. The fines inflict harm on businesses, potentially stifling entrepreneurial spirit, and could instigate public anger towards authorities in the longer term. Despite these warnings, it seems China’s local governments remain saddled with financial strain so vast no creative funding ploy will provide a sufficient lifeline.