China tries to put its best face forward
By Willy Lam

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 gangs 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 stability".

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.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

(Copyright 2008 The Jamestown Foundation.)