Leadership needs to rein in almighty party secretaries

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 April, 2012, 12:00am

In mainland bureaucratic lingo, yibashou, which literally translates into 'first hand', is the popular, informal and reverent word used to address the chief leader of every department or jurisdiction from the village all the way up to the state president.

While the exact origin of the term is unknown, some Chinese scholars speculate that it may have evolved from the hierarchy of bandits in the era of feudal dynasties, while others say it may derive from the confusing rankings of party officials in the early years of the People's Republic.

Then, there were several party secretaries for each province or city, with their ranking distinguished by sequence, as in first, second, third and so on.

Whatever the origin, the term signals absolute power, as any official addressed with it has effective control of human resources, business operations, finance and budgeting and promotions and salaries, according to the definition of the term in various Chinese dictionaries.

Within this context, it is not hard to understand why there has been a growing debate within the party leadership and in the state media over how to effectively monitor and control the yibashous, or the party secretaries of various departments or regions, following the downfall of Bo Xilai, the party secretary of Chongqing .
That touches upon one of the most important but also most sensitive aspects of the political system, which must be thoroughly and systematically reformed if the leadership wants to curb rampant official corruption and, more importantly, to make sure there will not be another Bo to split the party leadership in the future.

Bo was the typical yibashou when he was the Chongqing party boss, as he effectively controlled the sprawling metropolis like an overlord. There were no checks or balances to control him. His previous membership in the 25-member Politburo had made him even more powerful, as only the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee were higher-ranked than he was.

After his fall from grace, the mainland leadership said he broke the rules by sacking Wang Lijun as the Chongqing police chief without consent from the Ministry of Public Security, among other irregularities.

Apparently, Bo did not bother notifying the ministry partly because his Politburo membership was one rank higher than that of the public security minister, who was a mere state councillor - a perfectly legitimate excuse.

Now the party scholars and the state media are arguing that the term yibashou should be banned, as it not only signals absolute power, but is also the source of the corruption brought on by absolute power.

But banning the term cannot hide the fact that those party secretaries are just too powerful to control, as Bo's case has shown.

To be sure, China has come a long away from the dictatorship of Mao Zedong and the paramount leadership of Deng Xiaoping. The current leadership is supposed to rule through consensus. But the fact remains that a party secretary is still the first among equals in any mainland organisation, and the hierarchies of the party and the government still revolve around the yibashou regime.

It is interesting to note that following the death of Deng, Chinese analysts have begun to characterise the leadership regime as led by the general party secretary and the premier, to indicate that the two leaders are equal. For instance, the current regime is often described as the Hu-Wen administration, indicating that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are calling the shots together.

But the truth is that such an administration has never existed, as Hu, also the general party secretary, calls the shots alone. It is equally the case that there will not be a Xi-Li administration when Vice-President Xi Jinping and Vice Premier Li Keqiang take over from Hu and Wen respectively, later this year.

As the party scholars find ways to monitor and curb the power of yibashous, they should look no further than back at their own party history for guidance.

Before his downfall from power due to his support for student-led demonstrations in 1989, Zhao Ziyang, then the general party secretary, actively pushed for the separation of the party from the government, and for reducing the power and prominence of the party secretaries.

Unfortunately, the push for reform was halted following his ouster. Now is the time to revive the effort, given the urgency highlighted by Bo's case.


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