For a cleaner Beijing, sort out the city's bureaucratic mess

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2003, 12:00am

The Sars crisis has revealed the real life of Beijing. Since former party secretary Chen Xitong's fall from grace in the 1990s in a massive corruption scandal, the capital has got worse, not better. For all its impressive buildings and fancy hotel lobbies, Beijing has become polluted by an atmosphere of economic warlordism within each district and sub-district, unchecked by the top echelons - a style which characterised the city in the 1920s and 1930s.

Acting mayor Wang Qishan will have to crack the networks of bureaucratic cronyism, a possible underlying reason why the spread of Sars has been relatively unchecked throughout Beijing - much more so than in other cities in China.

The Sars crisis has unmasked how each level of officialdom in the capital interprets administrative decisions for its own benefit. Villagers on the city's outskirts are blocking roads, effectively controlling transport through areas under their control. Anyone passing through has to pay a fee to be 'sterilised'. This could involve spraying a few drops of water on the car's tyres. But fees must be paid. Even military cars have been stopped and occupants harassed for money. There have also been reports of individuals being stopped at roadblocks and asked to provide blood samples.

Now, certain neighbourhood leaders in the city are collecting 'sterilisation fees' from people under their jurisdiction. Some neighbourhoods have hung bright red banners declaring, 'Sars shall not enter our neighbourhood' and 'Crush Sars', as if they are running a political campaign. Meanwhile, rubbish is still dumped in the streets because no one has a dustbin.

The western district has issued orders that pets can be taken and killed by police and local officials merely because it is believed the animals may spread Sars. To date, there is no medical evidence to back such claims. Such an order has unlimited potential for abuse. The authority to make these decisions, say the district officials, lies with any neighbourhood leader or police station chief within the district. There has been no order from the city government or Health Ministry.

Beijing residents are questioning why the Sars outbreak has hit their city so hard. Shanghai saw a similar number of travellers from the infected areas of Guangdong and Hong Kong, but has remained relatively untouched.

The handling of the outbreak by Beijing's disgraced former mayor, Meng Xuenong, epitomises the city government's approach. Residents say that when the World Health Organisation arrived in Beijing, Mr Meng moved Sars patients between hospitals to try to stop them being discovered by inspectors. Tragically, the move probably contributed to the spread of the virus. In contrast, Shanghai welcomed the WHO's advice.

Beijing's local districts apply the old adage that 'the sky is high and the emperor far away'. One party secretary in a Beijing suburb is reported to have said: 'Who is Zhu Rongji? I am the party secretary here. Anything in this township happens because I say it will, or doesn't happen because I say it won't. So who's this Zhu guy?'

Mr Wang is one of Mr Zhu's proteges, with a similar style. He will certainly have other ideas about running Beijing. Many have welcomed his appointment with a similar enthusiasm to that when Mr Zhu became premier, seeing a chance to change the status quo of corrupt municipal degeneration.

Mr Wang said: 'The people of Beijing are most afraid that I won't know what their real situation is. Your mayor knows your matters and is willing to tell you everything.' He noted, however, that Beijing citizens may also be afraid that 'I know your matters but cannot solve them'.

For Mr Wang, the challenge will go beyond Sars. He will have to clean up the entire city government. This may prove more difficult.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing