A blast of fresh air from the far west

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 March, 2011, 12:00am

Xinjiang party chief Zhang Chunxian yesterday appeared to do what provincial-level party leaders rarely do: speak publicly and frankly about the realities on their patch.

In an open group discussion at the National People's Congress, more than 100 reporters showed up to listen to the rising political star.

Zhang, 58, was prepared to answer some difficult questions. In that, he was unlike his many cautious peers, who often shun reporters and their questions.

Asked about his personal assets, he said he had reported them to the party as required and was ready to report them to the public when a system to do so was in place. And he talked about his family, saying his only child, a girl, was pursuing a doctorate.

Zhang, who spoke in Beijing, where he is attending the annual meeting of the NPC, is one of the most sought-after officials because of the prospect of his political advancement and his role in Xinjiang, a strategic region heavily populated by Muslims that borders eight countries.

Zhang said China must apply to the far-western autonomous region the lessons of the 'jasmine revolutions' that brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

'I have total confidence at the moment in Xinjiang's stability. I have no worries at all. But I must learn the lessons, on a technical level, from the Middle East,' Zhang said.

'The lessons are in a country - I won't say which one - where people's welfare was not given significant attention. With an unemployment rate as high as 50 per cent, what will people do when they have no jobs? The price was high and the government was corrupt? These are all warning signals to us.'

Zhang said there were ways to guard against subversion, such as increased security, but he believed the best safeguard was 'people's confidence in supporting the regime'.

He said Xinjiang was 'under control and stable as a whole and turning better' but the foundation of that stability remained fragile, as the situation previously had been critical. 'We had to prevent two types of things: one, preventing society being harmed by large-scale mass incidents and preventing violent and terrorist incidents, especially the extreme ones.'

But Zhang said that to maintain stability, more fundamental issues had to be addressed.

'I'm afraid measures such as shutting down the internet and taking some technical measures are not long-term solutions to maintain stability,' he said, referring to the shutdown of the Web following ethnic riots in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi , in July 2009 that left at least 197 dead.

'If we want long-lasting stability, we must ensure the people can really enjoy and benefit from the fruits of reform and opening up,' he said, in a nod to the reforms begun three decades ago.

Zhang admitted an economic imbalance between the southern and northern parts of Xinjiang, and the task of maintaining stability, made his job both difficult and busy. 'I work more than 10 hours every day,' he said. 'Xinjiang has been a difficult place traditionally. There are so many unsatisfactory things about stability.'

Zhang replaced Wang Lequan, an iron-fisted ruler for almost 15 years, last April, nine months after the deadly clashes in Urumqi. He held a minister-level position in the Ministry of Transport until being promoted to party secretary of Hunan in 2005.

In contrast to Wang, who launched a security crackdown in the wake of the clashes, Zhang ordered the internet to be reconnected in Xinjiang within a month of taking office.

Zhang, who is married to China Central Television news anchor Li Xiuping , has long been known for his public relations skills and for his personal touch.

While in Hunan he was known as the 'internet party chief' for his direct response to people's questions online and for posting his thoughts on the provincial government website. He opened a personal microblog shortly before the opening of the National People's Congress to solicit public opinions on how 'to improve the livelihood of Xinjiang'.

Zhang said yesterday that he stayed up late on Monday night, reading all 5,300 comments.

'For some, I have asked my staff to respond to them.'

His good relationship with the media was apparent yesterday during an awkward moment when an army of journalists, male and female, local and foreign, followed him to a toilet and ambushed him.

Zhang kept his cool and assured the journalists he would address every question.

And he did, suggesting to aides that they stop interrupting reporters. He insisted on making sure every question was answered before leaving the hall where he spoke.