Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 4

by Willy Lam


As befits a country where rule of personality–rather than rule of law–holds sway, much of the concern of the new administration under Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier-designate Wen Jiabao will be improving the efficiency and probity of cadres and civil servants.


A foremost task of the State Council to be endorsed at the upcoming National People’s Congress (NPC) will be to further streamline the central and regional bureaucracy. Wen, 60, will also make a commitment to both Chinese and foreigners that after the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization there will be less party and government interference in business and other socio-economic activities.


Upon becoming premier in March of 1998, Zhu Rongji slashed the number of ministries and commissions from 40 to 29. The most recent reports from Beijing say these departments will be cut down to 22 or so at this NPC. As Vice-Premier Wen put it in a recent internal meeting: “We must change the function of government. We must build up a government with regulated behavior and harmonious operations–and which is fair, transparent, clean and efficient.”


Two of the current “super-ministries,” the State Development and Planning Commission (SDPC) and the State Economic and Trade Commission (SETC), will undergo dramatic changes. Many of the planning functions of the SDPC will be scrapped, and the new, slimmed-down State Development Commission will take care only of areas that include reform of the economic structure and long-term economic research and forecasts.


The SETC, one of whose key roles has been micro-level management of sectors and enterprises still under direct state control, will likely be abolished along with the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations. A newly established Ministry of Commerce will be responsible for regulating the domestic market and foreign trade. The ministries of personnel, civil affairs, labor and social security will be reconstituted into the Ministry of Human Resources and the Ministry of Social Security.


However, at least a few new government units will be set up, the most important of which will be the Commission on the Administration of State Assets. This unit’s main task is to maximize returns through a more rational management of the 11 trillion yuan worth of state assets. And the Wen government’s commitment to reform will be tested by the extent to which more state assets are successfully privatized.


A recent commentary by the official China News Service said Premier Zhu deserved credit for ushering in an efficient, “action-oriented government” that had fulfilled pretty much all the goals he had outlined, including government streamlining. According to the official media, Zhu had lopped off close to half of the nation’s eight million cadres and civil servants.


Most independent analysts, however, have disputed this claim because a high percentage of the central-level bureaucrats that are supposed to have been axed have in effect been re-employed by shiye danwei, or “government-funded institutions.” Those institutions include think tanks, academies, publishing houses and other services-oriented units attached to government departments. That is why Beijing found it necessary in January of this year to issue another call for streamlining shiye danwei staff.


Most significantly, Zhu has hardly made a dent in shrinking the size of local administrations, particularly those at the county and lower levels. One major reason why farmers are slapped with dozens of fees and levies is that they have to support a disproportionately large number of county- and village-level government bureaucrats and party functionaries.


Fighting corruption and promoting clean government will be an even taller order than curtailing the bureaucratic head count. At his memorable first press conference as premier, Zhu said in 1998 that “I shall forge ahead despite the minefields and the 10,000-foot precipices; I shall do my best and not worry about my life or death.” The no-nonsense premier was referring to the depraved officials he had to wrestle with in his bid to root out corruption and allied misdemeanors.


In the past year, however, there has been a revisionist reexamination of the Zhu administration. The State Council chief has been faulted for failing to improve the livelihood of farmers. And his use of deficit financing to ensure a high growth rate has led to record–and dangerous–levels of public debt. However, “iron-faced Zhu” has won well-nigh universal admiration for his role in cracking tough graft cases such as the multi-trillion yuan smuggling and corruption scandal that centered on the Fujian Province port of Xiamen.


General Secretary Hu played up the imperative of governmental probity at a study session organized earlier this month for full and alternate members of the party Central Committee. The party chief coined this new slogan: “Power must be used for the sake of the people; [cadres’] sentiments must be tied to those of the people; and material benefits must be sought in the interest of the people.”


Last week, the party’s top anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), issued five new regulations barring officials from using their power to engage in commerce. For example, cadres–and their relatives–are forbidden to buy stocks in or have business dealings with enterprises directly or indirectly under their control.


There are, however, serious doubts about whether Hu and Wen–both of whom seem to lack Zhu’s fire-spitting bravado and derring-do–can cure the age-old scourge of corruption. In his talk to the Central Committee, for example, Hu repeated President Jiang Zemin’s hackneyed remarks that the key to fighting corruption was “improving the worldview and party consciousness” of officials. Thus, the new party boss urged cadres “to develop the right concepts of power, status, and [personal] benefits.” “Officials must come to a clear understanding that the party is there to promote the public good and that administration must be for the sake of the people,” Hu added.


Party veterans, however, think the key to clean government is institutional checks and balances, particularly the establishment of a quasi-independent organ to tackle corruption. It is a truism that, as a party organ, the CCDI cannot be depended upon to investigate cadres having sterling political connections–such as the considerable number of suspected graft-takers deemed to be close to the Jiang Zemin or Shanghai Factions.


A party source familiar with the Hu camp, however, believes the party chief–together with new CCDI head Wu Guanzheng, who is considered close to Hu–may wield the “anti-graft card” to boost his national stature and bludgeon party rivals. For example, rumors persist that a number of senior cadres and “princelings”–offspring of party elders–implicated in the Xiamen scandal have been spared prosecution owing to their being members of the Jiang or Shanghai Factions. At his talk to the Central Committee, Hu had decried “cases of corruption taking place among senior cadres, especially top and medium-ranked officials.”


“Jiang has used fighting graft as a pretext to elbow aside political foes ranging from [former Beijing party boss] Chen Xitong to [former Politburo member] Li Ruihuan,” the source said. “It is not far-fetched to think that Hu may take a leaf from Jiang’s book in getting rid of enemies, including those who have enjoyed the out-going president’s patronage.”


Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.