China punishes 249 'lazy' officials for unspent funds

BEIJING (Reuters) - China has punished 249 officials for laziness, exemplified by failure to spend government funds, delays to projects and sitting on land earmarked for development, as the government wages war on graft, state news agency Xinhua said.

Spooked by China's biggest-ever crackdown on corruption, many officials have preferred in the past 18 months to dither over approvals for major projects, so as to avoid drawing the scrutiny of anti-graft officials.

That has annoyed Beijing, which has scolded procrastinating local governments for their laziness and repeatedly threatened to punish them by recalling their untouched budgets.

Xinhua said the 249 officials in 24 provinces, regions or cities had been sacked, or given administrative demotions or warnings after an investigation running from the end of May until the middle of June.

As late as May this year, a food recycling project in the northern province of Shanxi had yet to start construction, even though the government had released funds for it in 2012, Xinhua said late on Monday (Sept 28), listing some of the most telling examples.

"The aim of holding these people accountable is to promote work and manage the issue of laziness in government and doing nothing... and ensure this year's economic targets are on track," the report cited an unidentified official as saying.

Unspent funds of 296 billion yuan (S$66.4 billion) seized by the government by the end of August had mostly already been invested in "urgent" development projects and to improve people's livelihoods, Xinhua added.

It was not immediately clear if this figure was the same as the sum of 300 billion yuan in seized funds announced by the Cabinet last week. The government has previously said unspent funds would be invested as soon as possible.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has repeatedly criticised officials for being slack and lazy in pushing through Beijing's policy directives, as they kept their heads down to avoid being targeted in the anti-graft campaign.

China's economy appears set this year for its weakest performance in at least a quarter of a century, putting global investors and policymakers on edge.

A plunge in China's stock market over the summer and a surprise devaluation in the yuan currency have roiled global markets, stirring doubts about the government's ability to manage the economy.