Mayors can cut ribbons and go to jail without being noticed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 August, 2002, 12:00am

THEY SAY YOU cannot fight city hall. But it is probably even harder when you do not have a clue who works there or what goes on behind those imposing doors.

That seems so on the mainland. A survey of more than 3,400 residents of major Chinese cities showed that not a few had trouble identifying the mayor.

The survey asked whether residents knew the mayor's name, and were familiar with the mayor's policies and achievements as well as personal image. It also asked whether the mayor was perceived as honest and whether respondents approved of the performance on the job.

The published results of the survey covered the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Shenyang, Xiamen, Zhengzhou and Wuhan.

The survey company, Horizon Market Research Group of Beijing, concedes that two other - unnamed - cities were included but then dropped because their results were considered too poor to report.

Of the eight cities left, Wuhan was at the bottom of the list. Only 52.8 per cent of the respondents in Wuhan said they knew who the mayor (Li Xiansheng) was. I suspect some of the respondents might have had trouble telling you where Wuhan is. But for those who knew or guessed correctly, congratulations.

Far more had trouble describing the personality of the mayor or figuring out what he did while on the job.

Now I might point out that the mayor plays second fiddle to the party boss on the mainland so there is a bit of an explanation for the lack of awareness.

Residents certainly get a chance to see the mayor's smiling face on television or plastered over the pages of the local newspaper.

Usually they see the mayor at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, so it would not be surprising if a few mainland viewers concluded that the mayor started out his or her career as a tailor or seamstress.

There are other important occasions that are recorded by the official media for the benefit of future generations. Sometimes the mayor is seen greeting a foreign dignitary with a hearty handshake. Then there is the image of the local leader making an important speech - though what was said on the occasion is often not important enough to squeeze into a television station's limited air time or a newspaper's valuable space.

Overall, about 20 per cent of those people covered in the survey said they did not know the name of their mayor and about 40 per cent said they did not have a clue what the mayor had achieved or what policies had been pursued. Now I also might point out that mainland mayors do a lot of good work.

Of course, a few of them have had problems now and then, like Beijing's former mayor, Chen Xitong, who is still serving out his prison sentence.

Shenyang's ex-mayor Mu Suixin was jailed for life while the city's vice-mayor Ma Xiangdong was executed. But these kinds of things could happen anywhere.

Washington's former mayor Marion Barry ran into a few problems with the law during his career and the ex-mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Hugh Addonizio spent a little time behind bars due to his links to the mob.

The surprise winner in the survey was Chen Yichu of Zhengzhou, followed by Guangzhou's Lin Shusen. Shanghai Mayor Chen Liangyu trailed in fifth place overall.

It is curious that Shanghai's mayor did not fare better in a city where income and educational levels are relatively high. Many people who have met him would say the mayor is competent if not charismatic.

There are some possible explanations for the distant finish, however. Mr Chen is relatively new on the job, having been named acting mayor in December last year, though he was vice-mayor for a lengthy period.

He is also following a very popular mayor who was suddenly shunted aside without much of an explanation.

'He doesn't compare to [former mayor] Xu Kuangdi,' said a woman selling preserved eggs on a street corner. Asked what the mayor had done since he took office, she replied: 'He attends ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects Xu Kuangdi started . . . he hasn't done anything for me since I was laid off from my factory job.'

And an office worker in his mid-30s had this to say: 'I see him on television a lot but I don't know anything about his family or personal life.' The ruling Communist Party prefers not to let the public know too much about its leaders, avoiding at all costs the warts-and-all style of the West.

It also has reason to avoid a repetition of the cult of personality, such as in the days of Mao Zedong.

But that may not be enough any more.

'We need more transparency,' said Yuan Yue, who runs Horizon Consultants.

'Mayors need to have more charisma and they should be seen as closer to the people.' He said it might be better if those who lacked public support were not reappointed.

Sounds almost like someone wants to fight city hall.