China's new wealth clashes with party-boss influence

Quiet efforts are afoot in the southern city of Shenzhen to professionalize the civil service by party bosses.

The departure of Jiang Zemin from Chinese politics this week has left two relatively young leaders in charge of a country undergoing great economic growth but little political change. Still, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have vowed to tackle one of the thorniest problems here - the stultifying levels of official corruption.

In this booming southern city one need look no further than a new citizen's center to get the grumbling going among ordinary folk. Its massive steel roof curves over a five-block space in Le Corbusier style. But both workers and the necktie set mutter that the center doesn't serve citizens, was built without consultation and houses a surfeit of public officials in upscale luxury.

Such complaints are typical in China, where a top-heavy Soviet-era system remains intact. But in this gleaming factory boom-town, which borders cosmopolitan Hong Kong and where everyone is from somewhere else, an unusual battle is on between newly vested interests of wealth and reform and older vested interests like turf and pork. Among those pushing for reform are executives and new members of the upper-middle class here as well as a reform faction in Beijing. In the other corner are heads of city departments, local officials, as well as hard-liners in the central government.

In June, when the shutdown of 10 Shenzhen city departments was announced (a reduction to 35 from 45) along with news that some 200 officials were being invited to retire - reformers held their breath. The step, one of the first after four years of talk about the imbalance of power and accountability, was highly sensitive and not covered in Chinese-language media. The so-called "administrative reforms," planned ultimately to separate party bosses from city jobs, are bitterly resisted within China's consensus-based government and could easily fail, analysts say.

Yet if they take hold, Shenzhen may develop something found nowhere else in China: a budding class of professional civil servants not beholden to political cadres. Currently, China has no civil servants in the classic British definition, and no formal system of oversight and accountability.

Both the support for and resistance to such reform can be traced to Beijing party circles, sources say. Hu and Wen are regarded as modern and open to experiments. But in the current political climate, change needs to be sold to hard-liners as a benefit to the party, analysts say.

So experiments like those in Shenzhen may signal whether Hu and Wen will address the linked problems of accountability and corruption, analysts say - and whether they have a plan to adapt the political system to China's rapidly growing levels of education and wealth.

"When we were poor, we needed help, but now that we are rich we feel the main obstacle to our success is government," says Ma Jingren of Shenzhen University who is closely involved with reform. "It is too easy for our government to spend money."

Shenzhen was selected by reformer Deng Xiaoping as a model of economic development, and it has been one. The sheer newness of the city means it has fewer ingrown parochial family claims on local power. In 2000, teams of Shenzhen officials visited city halls in Britain, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Germany in search of new administrative models.

After four years of talk, countless reports, and infighting, little happened. But the streamlining that took place last June has held up. Next June, Beijing will conduct another review.

"Since Jiang has stepped down, Hu and Wen [need] to deliver on promises to end corruption," says Michael DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University. "Just as it fell to Jiang to reform and professionalize the Army, Hu can begin to reform in the administrative sector. To end corruption you need to separate policymakers from policy implementation, which is the idea in Shenzhen."

In China, reforms can't be labeled as political, but rather as administrative. In a system where officials wish to protect against examples like the breakup of the Soviet Union, few leaders will dare encourage direct participation of people in anything other than commercial endeavor. Last week Mr. Hu further clarified the point: "History indicates that indiscriminately copying Western political systems is a blind alley for China," Hu said at a Sept. 15 party meeting.

Local politics plays a major role. Even a seemingly simple effort to reduce taxi fares has failed in recent years. Shenzhen taxis are the most expensive in China, and a constant source of public irritation. Yet after two hearings, several city interventions, and pressure by reformers - nothing has changed. The local state-owned bus company blocked reduced taxi fares on the argument that their profits would suffer. But few Shenzhen residents believe that. Two weeks ago officals told taxi drivers to cut their fares by November, but then last week officials announced a meeting to challenge that order.

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