Guangdong's leaders pass muster

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2003, 12:00am

The Sars crisis and political ambitions aside, Huang Huahua and Zhang Dejiang are getting on with the job of driving economic growth in the southern province

A year after taking office, the report card of Guangdong's new leadership is apparently good, with the economy heading for 13 per cent growth after making a remarkable rebound from the Sars outbreak.

Huang Huahua took over as provincial governor and Zhang Dejiang as Communist Party secretary just as the Sars virus was emerging in cities surrounding Guangzhou. The untested pair were thrown into a crisis they initially managed by clamping down on information.

Although critics accused the new leaders of mishandling the outbreak, which was allowed to spread worldwide, they won praise from the World Health Organisation and the central government for controlling the spread of the virus locally and for the treatment regime developed.

President Hu Jintao fired health minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong, but spared Zhang Dejiang, a 57-year-old North Korea-trained economist who has been given credit for the rapid development of the private economy in Zhejiang, where he was formerly party chief.

There was speculation that Zhang Dejiang - who was seen as being aligned with Jiang Zemin and as one of the more promising fifth generation leaders - kept his job because he switched allegiance to Mr Hu and because, as a party central committee member, he was too strong to be purged.

Mr Zhang has shown himself to be an adroit and ambitious politician. He has focused on the province's hot-topic issues - education, the private economy and poverty alleviation.

Guangdong badly needs home-grown talent to deepen its industrial base. Yet, while the country as a whole spends 3.4 per cent of gross domestic product on education, the richest province in the country spends only 2.4 per cent.

Its privately owned enterprises are reaching the limits of their potential because of their difficulties in raising funds for expansion and their lack of managerial skills.

Meanwhile, the development gap between the Pearl River Delta cities and the rest of the province is threatening to hold back future growth. For all the attention Mr Zhang has given these issues, he has produced little in the way of new policies, even allowing for the distraction brought by Sars.

Educators say they are getting more funds but that the increase does not reflect the importance the government is supposed to be placing on education.

Private entrepreneurs still face problems raising money even though a bureau was set up in March to promote the development of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr Huang, a 57-year-old native of Guangdong, has won plaudits for his efforts to gain foreign support and ensure there is no let-up in Guangdong's fast-paced economic growth. He told Japanese and South Korean businessmen they should look beyond Shanghai and the country's northeast.

After Sars, he led a joint mission with Hong Kong officials to Japan and South Korea to promote investment - and came across more as a businessman than an administrator. Korean businessmen dubbed Mr Huang 'the CEO of Guangdong'.

Where Hong Kong is concerned, Mr Huang is backing the central government's policy of helping the city's economy recover. The governor invited Hong Kong to speak out about problems it encountered, and promised his full support. Members of the Hong Kong business community in Guangzhou have noticed an improvement in their dealings with local officials.

Not to be outshone by Mr Huang, Mr Zhang also went abroad, leading a mission to Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

As the year neared its close, the party chief was urging business executives on the governor's international advisory panel to back his proposal for a Pan Pearl River Delta economic zone grouping Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau and eight neighbouring provinces.

For several weeks, local media have been reporting progress on the formation of the grouping. But critics called it an empty concept and said Mr Zhang, like other ambitious leaders before him, was formulating a policy to serve as his platform for promotion to Beijing.

As one Hong Kong businessman puts it, the provincial government has failed to foster co-ordination between Pearl River Delta cities, leading to the duplication of infrastructure projects - so what is it doing talking about co-ordination between provinces?

A senior journalist in the province said: 'Zhang Dejiang is like [Liaoning governor] Bo Xilai. Bo Xilai manipulates the media to promote himself, while Zhang Dejiang manipulates the media to promote his grandiose plans.'

The journalist has reason to be sarcastic. Under Mr Zhang, the screw has been tightening on what was once a vibrant media scene. There has been an exodus of editors from the Southern Daily, while publication of the 21st Century World Herald was suspended and the paper allowed to die.

Fortunately for Guangdong, strong foundations laid down over the years, and its relative openness, have allowed it to get on with the business of driving the mainland's growth, Sars and political ambitions notwithstanding.