In party network, 'lowly' secretary jobs highly prized

The role of personal assistant might be scoffed at elsewhere, but in mainland politics it means access to power and almost certain promotion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 4:53am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 4:53am

The job of a secretary, though essential to any organisation, is often thankless and unglamorous - the person must type and take dictation, man telephones and e-mails, create files and keep diaries.

But in the mainland's massive bureaucracy machine and the Communist Party's political parlance, the term has taken on a wholly different dimension, one that denotes power and mystique.

In the traditional sense of the job, acting as secretary for a senior official is one of the most coveted jobs for a civil servant. The role can allow the person to be at the heart of the decision-making process, access the most privileged information, wield considerable influence on behalf of the master they serve, build up powerful connections, and open the possibility of a fast-track promotion for themselves.

There is good reason why secretaries serving senior officials are widely known as "No. 2" among civil servants. Many of the mainland's top leaders and high-ranking officials were once secretaries themselves.

Even Xi Jinping early in his career served as a personal secretary to Geng Biao, the minister of defence from 1979 to 1982, right after graduating from university. As secretaries, they may remain faceless and anonymous to the public but they are the ones lower-ranking officials would be first to ingratiate themselves with if they valued their career and intended to get a go-ahead on any job.

The more senior the leader a secretary serves, the higher the rank he can receive. Usually, the principal secretaries to top leaders carry the rank of a deputy government minister.

Because of their anonymity, the job carries a certain mystique, and state media seldom publish reports about them. Over the past month, however, two articles by the state media have shed interesting light on how they operate.

According to an article last week by the Southern Weekly in Guangdong, many secretaries serving leaders have risen to become powerful officials with the help of their former bosses.

It cited the example of Li Wei, once a secretary to former premier Zhu Rongji . Li has become the head of the Development Research Centre of the State Council, a leading government think tank. Another example is Qiu Xiaoxiong, who served as secretary to another former premier, Wen Jiabao , beginning in 1994, and was later appointed as a vice-minister of the State Administration of Taxation in 2011 shortly before Wen's retirement.

The article said secretaries faced stringent selection criteria that included family background, political loyalty and education.

It said leaders would often send their secretaries as representatives to important internal meetings and public functions and have them communicate with other officials on their behalf. That in turn elevates the secretaries' status.

A secretary can also easily take advantage of his proximity to power to collude with their bosses or become corrupt on their own volition, according to another report by the China Newsweek last month.

According to the state media reports, when corrupt officials are arrested, their secretaries are usually brought down as well because they often had served as middlemen in taking bribes or took advantage of power to engage in illicit activities.

The most notorious example of a secretary running amok is Li Zhen, a secretary to Cheng Weiguo, the party chief of Hebei province in the 1990s.

Li, with Cheng's backing, accepted bribes, colluded with Cheng's family members to rig projects in their favour, and solicited money from officials seeking career advancements. He was executed on corruption charges in 2003, while Cheng was sacked and expelled from the party.

The anonymity and the power of secretaries also provide a good opportunity for fraudsters to scam money. According to Beijing media reports in November last year, a man who claimed to be a secretary to a top leader managed to scam 300,000 yuan (HK$ 382,000) from his victim, promising to find a good job for the victim's son.

For mainland officials, a personal secretary has long become a symbol of power even though government regulations restrict the service to officials ranked deputy government minister or above. Some senior officials reportedly have separate secretaries looking after matters relating to their work, life and security.

As part of Xi's efforts to curb official corruption and extravagance, one of the new rules is aimed at banning officials from having too many secretaries.