A power play shaking Guangdong
Something is clearly amiss. The lengths to which authorities in Guangdong - and Beijing - have gone to show everything is all right in the go-go province are a good gauge of the severity of the malaise.
And the problem seems to go much further than the financial crisis precipitated by the bankruptcy of Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp (GITIC) and allied companies.
For starters, doubts are being cast on that crucial Chinese Communist Party ideal - what ideologues call 'the absolute unity of the leadership corps'.
Differences galore loom among Guangdong's senior cadres: party secretary Li Changchun, governor Li Ruihuan, and executive vice-governor Wang Qishan.
The uneasiness among the top three was illustrated by a somewhat stilted photo session arranged by publicists at the opening of the Provincial People's Congress last Tuesday. At the end of the session, the trio stayed back for the benefit of Guangdong and Hong Kong photographers. They struck comradely poses that appeared unnatural at best.
Propaganda officials then lectured Hong Kong journalists that reports about Guangdong officials being unhappy with the predominance of 'northerners' - led by Li Changchun and Mr Wang - were unfounded.
Last Friday, officials tried more damage control when they announced the arrival of three mid-echelon officials, including the new vice-mayor of Guangzhou, Lin Yuanhe. All three were non-Guangdong natives. Provincial spokesman Li Shoujin pointed out these appointments were part of 'regular rotations' of cadres from different provinces, adding that at the same time, three Guangdong officials were being posted elsewhere.
Talk to the average Guangdong cadre and such spin-doctoring becomes quite meaningless: from his perspective, President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, the supposed masterminds behind the 'crack the Guangdong mafia' crusade, have broken the unspoken pact between the late Deng Xiaoping and Ye Jianying, the erstwhile Guangdong godfather.
This referred to Deng's pledge in the late 1970s that in return for Marshal Ye's support for the Deng leadership, Beijing would only fill senior slots in Guangdong with native sons.
Mr Jiang has evidently used the pretext of 'regular rotations' to plant in the rich province proteges such as Li Changchun and Huang Liman, the vice-party secretary in charge of propaganda.
Moreover, Premier Zhu, also anxious to broaden his regional power base, had manoeuvred to install Mr Wang as the senior vice-governor with authority over the economy, in particular, the banking sector.
The upshot is that Li Ruihuan, seen as late as 1997 as a rising star, has effectively been sidelined.
Yet the picture is more complicated than just Guangdong natives versus carpetbaggers. One factor is the perceived rivalry among non-Guangdong cadres. For example, Li Changchun is said to be unhappy about Mr Wang's near-monopoly of powers over finances.
The other is the suspicion among locals that northerners are playing off one Guangdong clique against the other. Li Changchun has allegedly exploited the differences between the Kejia clique led by Marshal Ye's followers and cadres associated with prosperous Foshan county such as Li Ruihuan.
Of course, Beijing's Guangdong-related personnel policy, no matter how quirky, would be justified if the province was heading towards rosy realms.
As it is, the central authorities seem to have been more successful chopping down dead wood than nurturing new saplings.
Take the battle against economic crimes such as corruption and smuggling. Official figures said 1,766 cadres were subject to graft-related investigations last year. Unofficial estimates put the numbers as at least double.
'This is an overkill,' a Guangzhou-based Asian diplomat said. 'It's true quite a few so-called big tigers have been nabbed. But morale has plummeted as thousands upon thousands of cadres seem to spend most of their time worrying about their necks.' The same concern about killing rather than curing the patient applies to the crackdown on shoddy financial and trust companies. While touring Guangdong not long after the GITIC affair broke, even Great Rectifier Zhu admitted in an internal meeting that he had underestimated the fallout of the company's closure - particularly the impact on red-chip companies in Hong Kong.
Business confidence is dipping. Instead of upgrading products, most Guangdong managers are preoccupied with tapping fast-dwindling bank loans and outsmarting 'imperial inspectors' from Beijing.
Indeed, the province's supporters fear the pendulum swing back to centrally imposed disciple may hurt the most valuable aspect of the Guangdong experience: the innovative spirit and daring to smash forbidden zones.
Li Changchun has presided over a wave of ideological control not seen since the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution in 1983. Warnings have been served on respected muck-raking papers such as Southern Weekend and Cultural Times.
In his report to the Guangdong congress, Li Ruihuan set a lot of store by the 'cultivation of spiritual civilisation', code word for orthodox values. 'We must further strengthen the construction of ideology and morals, and deepen the movement on 'putting emphasis on [Marxist] studies, politics and righteousness'.' Judging by previous ideological crusades, the pogrom against politically incorrect ideas invariably spills into economics and business.
The cold wind from the north notwithstanding, Beijing does not, of course, want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. After all, the province still accounts for about 40 per cent of the nation's exports.
Central bureaucrats are mapping out detailed plans for hi-tech industries in cities such as Shenzhen. Ambitious schemes for Guangdong-Hong Kong joint ventures are on the drawing boards.
The fact of the matter, however, is that more than one year into the Beijing-inspired rectification campaign, negative factors such as the depletion of initiatives have overshadowed positive ones such as ways to square development with political rectitude.
For the first time in living memory, Guangzhou failed last week to cite an expansion target for exports. Last year, shipment of goods overseas grew by a mere 1.6 per cent, which fell far short of the goal of 10 to 15 per cent laid down in early 1998.
Guangdong residents' uncertainties about the future are reflected in the rise in superstition. Even intellectuals are talking about an earthquake said to strike in the run-up to the Lunar New Year.
The local Seismological Bureau has denied the rumours. But what the authorities cannot dispel is the widely held belief that both in politics and economics, Deng's favourite province is in for more tremors.