Recycling tainted cadres not way to clean government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2010, 12:00am

Flourishing official corruption and incompetence is the downside of China's remarkable success. The public is powerless to do much about it, but top leaders have warned that unless corruption is reined in it could undermine the Communist Party's political legitimacy. For this reason state media hailed a new accountability system for officials when it was endorsed by the politburo in May.

It is difficult, however, to reconcile accountability with the inexplicable and at times breathtakingly swift rehabilitation of disgraced officials. To be sure, harsh sentences and even executions have followed some of the worst cases, such as the tainted-milk scandal. But they have been exceptions which prove the rule that being held responsible for corruption or maladministration on your watch need not mean more than a bump in your career path.

The new system was supposedly going to change that and restore public confidence in the handling of official wrongdoers or incompetents. Instead, analysts say, Beijing is facing a credibility crisis amid growing public anger over the continued appointment of many disgraced officials to new posts.

The most prominent is Meng Xuenong , sacked as Beijing mayor in 2003 to take responsibility for a high-level cover-up of the Sars crisis. Within five months he was restored to the hierarchy with his appointment to a low-profile administrative post, and within five years returned to public prominence as governor of Shanxi . A year after that, however, he was forced to resign to take responsibility for a huge mudslide that left at least 254 people dead. Now he has resurfaced in the hierarchy, out of public view again, as deputy secretary of the work committee of the departments under the party's Central Committee, of which the secretary is President Hu Jintao's chief of staff.

Meng's double comeback is perhaps an extreme case, but on the face of it his seemingly charmed life makes a public mockery of the accountability system. That said, no one should be judged on one mistake, or mistakes, or because things go wrong on their watch. To condemn out of hand people with real ability for that would be to cause a serious loss to public service. Indeed, Meng may be just such an example - a double scapegoat who deserved another chance in a safer, lower-profile post. With the state so dominant in the economy, there are limited alternative avenues for such people to revive their careers.

But accountability and transparency go hand in hand. There is none of the latter in the restoration of disgraced officials to power and influence. It was certainly called for in Meng's case if the new accountability system is to have any credibility.

Some mainland experts have suggested officials should not be reinstated for at least two years and that in order to meet public expectations, the new system should be revised to clarify officials' real responsibility for failings on their watch and provide for tougher penalties. That would inject a little transparency into the process of rehabilitation. There would also be less public disquiet, amid the rampant corruption, if the party could also give a nod in the direction of transparent accountability by taking soundings of wider opinion, perhaps through a representative panel drawn from the National People's Congress, before restoring sacked or demoted officials to senior positions. Rigorous and public inquiries into official failure would be better still.