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China tries to put its best face forward

August 8, 2008

By Willy Lam
Asia TImes
August 6, 2008

While political reform is off the agenda, the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) has taken some visible steps toward improving the quality of
its cadres in light of the large number of unexpected and
near-disastrous "mass incidents" in this critical Olympic year.

For example, the low caliber of central and local officials has been
demonstrated by the failure of those in five western provinces to
either pre-empt or adequately handle the "Tibetan uprising" this
spring; the large number of tofu, or shoddily constructed, school
buildings exposed by the Sichuan earthquake; and pervasive reports
about collusion between police and underground gang that was behind
the riots in the provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan the past several weeks.

These disturbing incidents have notably stoked concerns among the
party's top brass over shaken public confidence in the capabilities
of the CCP. The dubious quality - particularly in terms of efficiency
and clean governance - of huge numbers of what chairman Mao Zedong
called "servants of the masses" has prompted the leadership under
President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to launch what could be
the largest-scale personnel reform scheme since the mid-1990s.

Moreover, CCP authorities have asked the chiefs of cities, counties
and townships to periodically meet "petitioners" - a reference to
peasants and workers with grievances against the regime - so that
grassroots cadres can improve their "constituency" work through
personally defusing what party officials call "inner contradictions
among the people" (renmin neibu maodun).

Politburo members handling organizational matters, including Vice
President and politburo standing committee member Xi Jinping, have
reiterated Beijing's commitment to filling mid- to senior-ranked
posts with reliable and competent candidates. In national conferences
on personnel reform during the past month, Xi and CCP organization
department director Li Yuanchao also enunciated a set of new
requirements for 21st century cadres.

Xi, who doubles as president of the Central Party School, noted that
party and government officials should have five basic qualifications:
they "must be cognizant of the nature and requirements of the CCP;
have a high level of morality; be able to act as a model [for
others]; be fully aware of potential dangers and threats [to the
party]; and be earnest and practical-minded in serving the people and
in staying away from corruption".

Given that these are deemed fairly basic standards for party members,
the emphasis that Xi has put on them seems an indirect admission that
periodic indoctrination campaigns that the party has launched the
past decade have not been successful.

More detailed criteria were laid down by politburo member Li, a
long-time protege of Hu's. Li pointed out that while candidates for
promotion must be both capable and "morally above-board", more
emphasis will be placed on the latter - particularly officials'
"resoluteness in political [principles]". Li pinpointed "four types
of people" who will be barred from the top echelons. "We will not
employ people who use their positions to pursue private gains and who
are not trusted by the masses," Li said. The other three kinds of
undesirable elements included "opportunistic careerists" who
specialize in cultivating "connections"; officials who pay no
attention to ideological or moral precepts; and "time-servers" with
little interest in doing solid work.

The State Council has also tightened rules governing the income and
"moral standards" of senior managers in state-owned enterprises
(SOEs), such as the 160 conglomerates that are subsumed under the
state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC).
Even though most of these 160 behemoths, which include the three oil
monopolies and the major commercial banks, are now listed on the
stock market, the great majority of their senior executives are party
cadres appointed by SASAC in conjunction with the CCP organization department.

The State Council promulgated in early July a set of seven "no nos"
in an effort to safeguard the integrity of the state entrepreneurs.
These rules are geared toward curtailing corruption,
influence-peddling and conflict of interest. For example, top
managers - or their relatives - must not take profit through using
inside information; they must not award themselves or their
underlings with unreasonably generous salaries or bonuses; and they
must not accept commissions or other advantages in the course of
enterprise restructuring or injections of funds by multinationals.

Perhaps more importantly, the party leadership is trying to let the
public have some say - albeit in an indirect and unconventional
fashion - in the recruitment and assessment of officials in provinces
and major cities that include Guangdong, Guizhou and Chongqing.
Reformist leaders such as the party secretary of Guangdong Wang Yang
and Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai have made it mandatory for
short-listed candidates for posts of county and district chiefs - and
their equivalent - to participate in public debates that are
simultaneously broadcast on local television and Internet sites.

The CCP organization department is also trying to gauge the masses'
reaction to how officials are being selected. In early July, party
authorities held a survey of 80,000 citizens and civil servants on
their views toward the party's "organizational work", including how
CCP and government units hire officials and appraise their work.

At this stage, however, the degree of "mass participation" in
organizational and personnel issues is limited. For instance, the
much-touted "popular selection" of the party chiefs of four districts
in Guiyang, the province of trouble-prone Guizhou province. Through a
mixture of recommendation by party authorities and the public, 81
candidates competed this year for the four slots.

After passing the requisite exams and receiving high marks in opinion
surveys among selected Guiyang residents, the short-listed candidates
faced the public during two televised "debates", when they also
enunciated their policy goals. And in late July, all 48 members of
the CCP committee of Guiyang cast secret ballots to whittle the eight
finalists down to four.

While, as mainland media commentators have alleged, the Guiyang
example may illustrate the leadership's commitment to a "sunshine
personnel policy", candidates with unorthodox, let alone politically
incorrect, views could still be spurned.

Experiments recently conducted in Shanghai to chop away dead wood in
municipal enterprises and other quasi-official organizations may have
more significance for "democratic personnel appraisal" (minzhu ganbu kaohe).

 From early July, employees in the more than 7,000 companies owned by
the city government - as well as government-affiliated cultural,
health, education and technological units - have held assessments of
their leaders via secret ballot. The latter include the secretaries
of relevant party committees, as well as the chairmen and senior
managers of companies and organizations.

Party secretaries and executives whose approval ratings are lower
than 60% may be fired. While the municipal document on this
administrative reform noted that "democratic assessment must uphold
the principle of party leadership", it is probable that highly
unpopular - and corrupt - managers will be flushed out of the system
thanks to this limited exercise of "democratic assessment".

After the riots in Weng'an county, Guizhou in late June, in which
some 20,000 villagers clashed with police over the latter's alleged
mishandling of the death of a teenage student, the CCP leadership has
asked local officials, including majors and county chiefs, to conduct
regular "meet the petitioners" sessions. It is a tradition going back
to dynastic China for lowly residents with grievances against the
authorities to trek thousands of miles to the provincial or national
capital to present their cases to the emperor or his plenipotentiaries.

In the run-up to the Olympics starting on Friday, Beijing municipal
authorities have chased away the tens of thousands of petitioners who
congregate in the capital even in the winter months. In view of the
multiple disturbances and riots, however, the CCP Central Commission
for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) headed by politburo standing
committee member He Guoqiang in mid-July promulgated a set of
regulations affirming the rights of citizens to submit petitions -
and calling on regional officials to personally handle the people's grievances.

The regulations, issued in conjunction with the Ministry of
Supervision and the State Petitions Bureau, pointed out that
petitions had provided valuable leads that enabled supervisory
departments to find out about the misdeeds or dereliction of duty on
the part of unqualified and malevolent cadres. The CCDI, which is
China's highest anti-corruption watchdog, noted that regional
officials must adopt "proper attitudes and methods" in dealing with
visits by the masses or letters of grievances.

Xinhua News Agency quoted a CCDI spokesman as saying that the new
rules were aimed at "ensuring the responsibility of [regional]
leaders, punishing those who have violated regulations relating to
petitions, upholding the [proper] order of the petition system,
upholding petitioners' legal rights, and promoting social harmony and

Will the Hu-Wen team's overzealous desire to present a new face of
China to the Olympics spectators translate into a novel - and more
transparent - system for picking good cadres and jettisoning bad eggs
within the bureaucracy? It is true that after the Guizhou riots, the
party secretary and administrative head of Weng'an county, as well as
the local police chief were fired. And dozens of Sichuan officials
implicated in multiple scandals concerning tofu school buildings have
been sacked.

However, quite a few of the supposedly new criteria for cadre
selection have addressed the hackneyed concern for loyalty to the
party, not the candidates' innovative capabilities to deliver public
services to the masses. More significantly, the buck still stops at
relatively low reaches of the hierarchy. Partly due to the fact that
Hu, a former party secretary of Sichuan and Guizhou, is the patron of
numerous regional cadres in western China, the careers of the party
secretaries or governors of provinces including Tibet, Sichuan or
Guizhou are not expected to be affected by the apparent
administrative failings in their areas of jurisdiction.

Will citizens with grievances really be allowed to confront officials
with allegations of corruption or maladministration? And will the
latter live up to their promise of redressing wrongs and curbing the
abuse of power, which is at the heart of the tens of thousands of
"mass incidents" a year?

While discussing how to better handle petitions from the masses, the
vice president of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, Zhang Geng,
indicated that senior prosecutors must personally talk to petitioners
- and if necessary, conduct investigations in the localities. Zhang
particularly stressed the relationship between the correct handling
of petitions and a successful Olympics. He urged legal and judicial
cadres to do their best "to minimize [events] that will disrupt
social stability, jeopardize safety during the Olympics or hurt the
national image".

The CCP leadership's apparent anxiety to nurture more responsible
officials and to improve ties between cadres and the people, however,
has been cast into doubt by the decision of the Olympic Games
organizers to bar petitioners from the capital. As early as the
spring, CCP authorities ordered regional officials to resolve
problems, particularly those that might engender ugly confrontation
between officials and the masses, at the grassroots.
Even more problematic is the fact that police as well as
state-security agents have been given free rein to harass foreign and
Hong Kong reporters who dig into these stories. Moreover, a dozen-odd
activist lawyers and Internet editors have been detained for
apparently trying to expose the "dark side of officialdom" in Sichuan
and Guizhou.

The contradiction between the CCP's rhetoric and action, and the
recent burst of "mass incidents" highlights the exigency with which
the Hu-Wen team needs to do more to convince Chinese citizens as well
as Western observers that their pledges about training better cadres
- and giving more say to the oppressed under-classes - will last
beyond the fanfare and spectacles of the Olympics.

Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation.
He is the author of five books on China, including the recently
published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New
Challenges. Lam is an adjunct professor of China studies at Akita
International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
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