The bureaucrats have been warned | South China Morning Post
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Wen Jiabao

Premier of China between 2003 and 2013, Wen Jiabao served as vice-premier between 1998 and 2002. Wen, who was born in 1942, spent 14 years working in Gansu province’s geological bureau before being promoted in 1982 to vice-minister of geology and mineral resources. Wen graduated from the Beijing Institute of Geology in 1968 and has a master’s degree in geology. He was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee between 2002 and 2012. 


The bureaucrats have been warned

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am

As one popular Chinese idiom goes, the writing mirrors the writer. Vice-President Xi Jinping's latest speech lambasting the mainland's bureaucrats for empty talk and pursuing vanity projects makes interesting reading, considering he will be the mainland's next leader.

As the head of the Communist Party's Central Party School, the top training ground for senior officials, Xi gave the speech at the school's spring semester on March 1. The fact that the full-text speech was published in the Communist Party's Qiushi journal, the Study Times newspaper and carried by Xinhua to a nationwide audience last Tuesday signals that fighting bureaucracy is something close to his heart.

To be sure, so-called bureaucratism is a malaise of governments everywhere in the world. It is also an issue which has generated a lot of talk among mainland leaders over the years on how to fight it, but they have little to show for.

But Xi's speech entitled 'The key lies in implementation' matters in the following way.

First, he once again put the debate right up front. More importantly, his speech offers some interesting clues as to what kind of administration he is going to lead in two years' time.

Xi is widely expected to replace Hu Jintao as head of the Communist Party at its 18th Congress next year in the autumn and as president in March 2013. Because of the leadership's diehard obsession with secrecy, the outside world has little understanding of Xi and other incoming leaders who are going to be in charge of steering the world's second-largest economy.

Apart from speculation and innuendo, their public speeches are one of the few avenues available for analysts to assess them.

By combing through Xi's recent major speeches and sifting through speculation, it is not difficult to infer that he is the can-do and no-nonsense type with an obvious abhorrence for bureaucracy.

In his latest speech, he blasted the bureaucrats for going after superficial achievements and pursuing 'ostentatious and flashy vanity projects which waste energy and money'. He also took a dig at other officials for getting lost in 'mountains of documents and a sea of meetings'.

Xi warned that those actions have seriously damaged the credibility of the party and the government. He said officials' arrogance and complacency would make it impossible to undertake new reforms and could even damage achievements made so far.

It was nothing trail-blazing, but his tone showed a determination to tackle bureaucracy as a priority.

How to streamline bureaucracy is an urgent task for mainland leaders as the bureaucrats themselves are one of the biggest obstacles to the mainland realising its 2011-2015 five-year plan.

Premier Wen Jiabao admitted last week that persuading local officials to abandon the 'GDP only' mentality and ensuring that economic growth must not be achieved at the cost of resources, energy, and the environment will be a daunting task for the central government to transform the way the economy grows over five years.

As Wen is also stepping down in two years' time, Xi and his new administration are most likely to be left to rein in local officials.

Xi's speech also touched upon a popular misconception among some foreign analysts over the strengths of the Communist Party's dictatorship as he criticised officials for focusing on immediate interests over long-term ones.

When finding reasons to explain China's rapid economic growth and the ability to undertake mega-projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, some analysts like to cite the one-party rule as a strength, as the officials do not have to pander to voters with short-term pork-barrel projects.

That might have been true in the past, but these days mainland officials increasingly act like their Western term-limit politicians, at least in the area of spending. While the party does not have term limits, the officials' maximum term for one job is 10 years. That explains why many of them waste money and resources on vanity projects: not only because the spending helps boost the GDP and their promotion chances, but also because spending can bring them plenty of opportunities to make money for themselves.

So it is interesting to note that in his speech, Xi for the first time trumpeted the idea that 'crowning success does not have to occur during my term', as he urged officials to plan and think long term.

That phrase will no doubt catch on, but the key to its realisation also lies in implementation, as Xi well argued.


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