Recruit good leaders and let them do their jobs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2009, 12:00am

The appalling safety record of many key industries on the mainland points to the need for systemic reform and restructuring, not just the punishment of individuals. There is a need for accountability that targets not only corrupt or incompetent officials but the flaws in the system that allow them to act in such a way. Making a few officials responsible after a scandal breaks may help assuage public anger, but it does not necessarily tackle the chronic problems that plague some of the nation's most important industries.

In this context, it should come as no surprise that no one can be found to fill the permanent positions of party secretary and mayor in the coal-rich city of Linfen in Shanxi province. Over two years, the city has seen a spate of shocking mining accidents that have claimed the lives of hundreds of miners; official heads have rolled. Two previous mayors and the city's former party chief Xia Zhengui were sacked as a result. Meng Xuenong, a protege of President Hu Jintao, lost his job as Shanxi governor in September after just eight months in the post. Ironically, he had been sacked as Beijing's mayor in 2003 for his mishandling of the Sars outbreak. Shanxi produces half the nation's coal but is notorious for its deadly collieries and mines. Without wholesale reform, one can expect more terrible accidents and more officials to be held to account.

It is easy to see why no one would want the jobs - they are almost certain to be blamed for any accident. But it is important to attract talented people to such positions. Once in the job, they should be given sufficient time to make the changes needed. Further accidents may occur, but they may not be the fault of the person at the top.

The mainland's safety record will not improve without broad reform of the industry. Mine owners and operators need the right economic incentives to maintain safety. The problems that plague the mining industry are similar to those facing the dairy industry, whose reputation has been tarnished by the crisis over the contamination of milk. In such key, but troubled, industries, sweeping reforms - not only the rolling of heads - are long overdue.