Reinstatement of 'punished' officials is pure farce

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 May, 2009, 12:00am

Soon after President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao took the country's reins, they faced the first major test of their leadership in March 2003 - the outbreak of Sars and international criticism of the central government's initial attempts to cover up the crisis.

But they soon took drastic action by sacking then Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang , and then Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong , for attempting to cover up the epidemic or incompetence related to it.

They also made public the scale of the crisis and sped up efforts to contain the disease's spread.

The sackings were hailed by mainlanders and the international community alike and generally seen as defining a new governance style - putting the people first.

Six years later, however, the much-trumpeted official accountability system has lost its lustre and has become a target of ridicule in mainland internet chat rooms and even the official media.

The latest example that has triggered nationwide anger is the truly bizarre punishment by demerit, reappointment and reinstatement of a middle-level official with the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ).

On March 20, the country's top anti-graft watchdog publicly announced a decision to punish eight officials for their roles in the melamine-in-milk scandal, which led to the deaths of at least six children from kidney failure and saw nearly 300,000 fall ill, many with painful kidney stones.

The eight officials were the third batch of government bureaucrats to be supposedly punished for their parts in the scandal, which shocked mainlanders and the world community.

The leadership believed the scandal seriously harmed the mainland's international image when it came to light in September, mere weeks after a successful Olympic Games.

But soon after the officials' punishment was announced, a sharp-eyed netizen noticed that one of the eight, Bao Junkai , listed as a deputy director of AQSIQ's food-production department in official documents, had, in fact, already been appointed director of the Anhui Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Bureau. Moreover, Mr Bao became a director - one administrative rank higher than his original one - in December last year, while the central government was reportedly still investigating officials' roles in the milk scandal.

The revelation naturally caused an uproar both in official media and chat rooms, particularly after AQSIQ officials said the decision to promote Mr Bao had been made before the scandal and he took up the job after the scandal. A new twist came last week, when state media reported Mr Bao's appointment as deputy director of AQSIQ's science and technology department.

Understandably, online chat rooms are full of angry comments about Mr Bao's career path, blasting the accountability system.

Even state media have carried critical commentaries, urging the government to explain Mr Bao's 'punishment' and reappointments, with some saying his career movements have made the accountability system look ridiculous.

Interestingly, there has been zero reaction from the mainland leadership despite the public outcry.

To be fair, tales of officials bouncing back from scandals can be found everywhere, but the sham of the mainland's official accountability system is hard to beat. In retrospect, the system fizzled soon after it began.

Soon after their high-profile dismissals during the Sars outbreak, Mr Zhang was appointed a role with the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and Mr Meng became deputy director of a huge water diversion scheme under the State Council, then governor of Shanxi, although he resigned after a huge landslide killed hundreds of people in the province in September.

State media regularly run reports about officials punished for various offences who quietly move on to other, sometimes better, jobs.

So don't hold your breath over Beijing's future announcements of bureaucrats being sacked for accountability or incompetence.