਀㰀䴀䔀吀䄀 渀愀洀攀㴀䜀䔀一䔀刀䄀吀伀刀 挀漀渀琀攀渀琀㴀∀䴀匀䠀吀䴀䰀 㠀⸀  ⸀㘀  ㄀⸀㄀㤀 ㄀㤀∀㸀㰀⼀䠀䔀䄀䐀㸀 Alive and kicking in the cadres' memorial home
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has started a nationwide reshuffle of provincial officials ahead of a change of its top leadership next year. This is like a housing redevelopment: a new foundation must be laid before the superstructure can be put on it.

Some provincial leaders have retired because of old age, and younger ones have been rotated or promoted to work in other regions. While many overseas China watchers monitor who is appointed to what new post and who is whose protege, people inside the Middle Kingdom seem to be more interested in finding out how outgoing officials will be rewarded for their "retirement".

Many are upset that, as Chinese media and netizens have exposed, a number of officials being "retired" have not really done so but have been appointed to posts in the National People's Congress (NPC) or the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). As such, the NPC, the country's parliament, and the CPPCC, the country's top political advisory body, seem to remain as "nursing houses" for retired officials. Some other retired officials have found their way to work as "independent directors" in publicly listed companies and received handsome emoluments.

Initiated by Deng Xiaoping himself in early 1980s, the lifetime tenure system for party and government officials was abolished by the CCP and replaced with a compulsory retirement system. After years of practice and improvement, strict "retirement" age ceilings are now set for cadres at various levels. A minister-level official must step down upon reaching the age of 65. Those more senior such as a Politburo member or vice premier can work until 70, while the top leaders such as the party general secretary or the premier are entitled to hold their posts when a little older. All officials below the level of minister have to go when they reach 60; the rationale is to leave their posts to young blood.

The NPC and CPPCC are excepted from this reform. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, they accommodated many retired senior officials. The CPPCC, designed as a "political vase" to show "democracy with Chinese characteristics", is practically powerless. The public therefore care less about whoever is sent there. But the NPC is constitutionally the "highest power institution" of the country and empowered to set laws and supervise the function of the government. In recent years, NPC deputies are increasingly exercising their rights. This is evident in each year's NPC annual session, with government proposals under more scrutiny and as officials are grilled more keenly.

However, the 2,900 NPC deputies are not full-time congress people. They have their own regular jobs and gather in Beijing only to attend the NPC annual session. In the rest of the year, the NPC Standing Committee acts on its behalf. In recent years, there are growing calls for reforms of the NPC, such as allowing its deputies to be directly elected or at least make NPC Standing Committee members work full time so that they can better carry out duties to supervise the daily operation of the government.

The CCP seems to have agreed on the need to make some changes and take a gradualist approach. Now the standing committee has a handful of full-time members, and there have been direct elections for a limited number of deputies to some local people's congresses. Snail steps as they are, they still can be regarded as progress.

Against such a backdrop, it is odd to see a group of freshly retired officials appointed to head sub-committees of the NPC.

According the state-run media reports, Zhang Yunchuan, Wei Liucheng and Bai Enpei have retired as Hebei, Hainan and Yunnan provincial party chiefs respectively. Lu Zhushan has retired as governor of Zhejiang province, while Li Chengyu has retired as chief of the All China Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives (China Co-op). Two People's Liberation Army (PLA) generals, Chi Wanchun, the political commissar of the General Armament Department, and Liu Zhenqi, deputy director of the General Political Department, have also retired. All are minister-level cadres who reached the age of 65.

Upon their retirement, however, they have all been appointed as deputy heads of NPC sub-committees, and can therefore continue enjoy the privileges and benefits of minister-level officials.

Critics slam this as a sign that the CCP wants to continue using the NPC as a nursing home for retired cadres, a step back from the just-started reforms.

But this is perhaps not a big surprise. Alarmed by the Jasmine Revolutions in Middle East and North Africa, the CCP has been taking moves to strengthen its rule. NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo made it clear in an earlier statement that China would not adopt Western-style division of power. Instead, it would make every effort to strengthen the single-party rule of the CCP and make ensure everything is under its control.

Reappointing retired senior officials to take key posts in the NPC therefore should be viewed as a move to enhance the party's control of the parliament. This is of particular importance ahead of power transition. After the party's 18th congress in late 2012, a new NPC and a new cabinet will also be formed in early 2013.

The Chinese public are also upset by reports that many retired officials have found their way to work as "independent directors" in listed companies, so that they can have ample money to buy what they could no longer get with power.

In July, an investigative report on the official website of the People's Daily, the CCP's flagship newspaper, revealed that the top 50 A-share companies listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges hire at least 34 retired senior officials who are paid several hundred thousand yuan (6.38 yuan = US$1) a year.

And some retired officials have even taken posts in companies previously directly under their supervision.

For example, former chairman of China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) Liu Hongru, former vice minister of State Administration of Taxation Cui Junhui and former vice minister of petro-chemical industry Li Yongwu are now "independent directors" of state-controlled PetroChina. Former chairman of China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC) Ma Yongwei now works as an "independent director" of China Life, the country's largest life insurer. Both PetroChina and China Life also sell H-shares in Hong Kong. Liu Tinghuan, former deputy governor of the People's Bank of China (PBoC) or central bank, now works for Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.

Then, a follow-up report by Investor Journal weekly found that in 2010, there were 1,599 retired officials working in A-share companies. Many receive handsome salaries without doing any real work. It is believed that many more retired officials may have been hired by non-listed businesses.

Such reports have aroused fears that a new form of officials corruption may be getting in shape, which may be called offering and taking "future option" briberies. An official in office could use his power to give "conveniences" for a certain company to make huge profits. He would not immediately accept anything tangible in return but acquiesce on taking a "future option" - an offer to take an idle but more-then-well paid post in the company after retirement. He would thus remain clean while still in power but could get what he wants after retirement. This type of corruption is much more sophisticated and difficult to be detected and convicted.

Strangely enough, up to date the Chinese government has set no regulation whatsoever to govern its officials taking jobs in businesses after retirement. This is a great "grey area" which must be regulated and supervised. Otherwise, it surely will soon grow into a huge hot bed for corruption.