Reform question looms large for new guard

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 October, 2002, 12:00am

The biggest decision facing China's new leaders over the next five years is one their predecessors have ducked for the past 20: political reform.

However, the leadership team that emerges from the 16th party congress is unlikely to do anything that might jeopardise the party's monopoly on power.

A series of party and government - but not political - reforms that has gathered steam in Guangdong this year does suggest there will be some tinkering at the margins.

While this tinkering is ostensibly aimed at rendering government more transparent, accountable and 'democratic', there is little evidence that the party - which knows a Pandora's box when it sees one - will allow it to weaken its control.

But while Guangdong's party and government reforms will not lead to true democracy, they seem to be motivated in part to address the weaknesses of a non-democratic system.

It should be noted that the reforms stem from initiatives originating in Beijing. They have become connected with Guangdong only because they were introduced in the province, with Beijing's blessing, and because Guangzhou's newspapers made a bigger deal of them than media in other provincial capitals.

In April, the 84-member Guangdong party committee announced that three municipal party secretaries - for Maoming, Qingyuan and Zhanjiang - had been 'elected' by a majority of committee members. The procedure, it said, would be repeated for all municipal party secretary and mayoral appointments.

Under the new procedures, which were reportedly first introduced in Guangdong with the 'full approval of the Central Committee', Guangdong party committee members were given seven days to discuss candidates and forward recommendations to the 15-member Guangdong party standing committee.

The standing committee then approved the nominees and sent their names back to the full committee for a vote by secret ballot, with a majority needed to confirm an appointment.

'The new procedures stem from a Central Committee directive to all provinces to emphasise collective decision-making. Guangdong was the first to follow through on it, and it is significant that it did so before the 16th party congress,' said one local academic who advises the party on government reform issues.

The Guangdong party committee did not say whether there had been more than one nominee for each position. It is unlikely, however, that there was more than one. And with the standing committee having a veto over the nominees, it would seem that the aim of the exercise is to make internal party mechanisms appear more democratic.

The fact that these procedures confirm mayoral appointments would also undercut the alleged independence of municipal people's congresses - as did the appointment last year of Guangzhou party secretary Huang Huahua as chairman of the Guangzhou People's Congress.

But according to the academic, even if the new 'election' procedures are not democratic in nature, they were implemented as part of an effort to remedy the abuses that can arise in an undemocratic system. 'By using such procedures we can select better cadres and reduce the incidence of corruption,' he said.

In March, the Guangdong government's Open Selection Office announced that 202 candidates competing for 20 deputy department head positions had been whittled down to 120.

The selection process is largely comprised of a series of oral and written examinations administered by the Open Selection Office. Recommendations from each candidate's work unit are also considered. Applicants can only hail from government departments, establishments or state-owned enterprises.

Luo Dongkai, head of the Guangdong Open Selection Office and vice-director of the provincial party committee's Organisation Department, said in an interview with local media that this year's was the third round of open selections organised by Guangdong.

Seven jobs had been conferred through a competitive process in 1997 and 14 in April last year. Mr Luo predicted that in the future one-third to a half of all deputy department head positions in the provincial government would be opened to competition.

Similar experiments are being implemented by municipal governments.

In March, Dongguan announced it was accepting applications for 1,100 public security, government and court positions. And in late July, Guangzhou revealed the successful candidates for 44 district government appointments 'openly selected' from a pool of more than 1,600 applicants.