Wednesday, 19 July 2017

And Another One Bites The Dust—Except The Dust Hasn’t Settled

Various new reports indicate that Chongqing party chief Sun Zhengcai [孫政才] has been placed under investigation by central authorities here in China. Xinhua and other news outlets confirmed his removal, and his replacement by Guizhou Party secretary Chen Miner [陈敏尔].

And that’s all anyone outside of the inner leadership circles of the Communist party knows right now.

However, that’s not stopped some from claiming that Sun was a potential successor to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and that Xi removed him because Sun was seen as a possible threat.

Or maybe it’s that Xi is consolidating power (again and still—a canard that’s apparently never going away). Sun is one of those political dominoes apparently, whose disappearance is a sign that Xi plans to remain at least through next term and possibly beyond. That’s one interpretation—maybe the leading one for many at this point.

Then again, some have stated, perhaps this is all part of a larger struggle between political factions, and that Sun’s removal is a blow against—wait for it—“liberal factions” of the Communist party (whatever they are, given that there’s been no mention of them previously and little evidence that anything of the sort exists these days).

The straight reporting on this development has been revealing, especially because at least one newspaper broke the story before the official announcement.

It’s the speculation that’s rather grating.

After all, if Sun’s removal was predictable, why wasn’t it predicted? No one did so. That should say something about how much of what passes for analysis is actually just conjecture. Taking down Sun was surprising, if only because nobody said to watch out for it. Why? Because no one saw it coming, even though many are saying that it’s all about That Well-Known Struggle For Power In China.

Then there are the rumors about possible corruption charges against Sun. But they remain just that—rumors. While charges of graft might be added on to Sun’s charge-sheet later, previous announcements of high-ranking officials being removed usually feature an accompanying mention of their malfeasance. But not with Sun, at least thus far.

Anyway, how precisely does taking down Sun help Xi?

That’s not discussed. The supposition—and that’s all it is, at best—is that anyone who gets politically decapitated these days is because Xi’s in charge, and the victim is someone he doesn’t like, and needs to disappear. That’s bizarre, because China has something called a collective leadership--albeit with Xi at the core. Party rules and regulations render any change in upper ranks an arduous process that can’t be made by a single individual. But that isn’t mentioned, perhaps because it’s just easier to single out Xi, even though he doesn't get to make personnel decisions unilaterally.

It is probably worth noting that there’s an assumption where this case is being made: That Xi’s in command, but he’s trying to consolidate power further, because that’s why Sun was removed. That’s some magic Xi’s engaged in, winning fights while he’s still fighting.

Isn't it possible that Sun was dismissed not because of Xi’s wishes, but in spite of them? That Sun was an ally (which is what many media outlets outside China mooted before) and his removal does harm to Xi, rather than assist him to—there it is again—consolidate power? In that case, Xi’s not strengthening his position, but seeing it weakened.

Given the lack of actual inside information, that conclusion is just as likely an explanation as the alternatives that have been presented. Indeed, just about any scenario is possible at this point.

So here’s another one.

Sun was topped because he turned out to be ill-suited to the task he was assigned. 

Chongqing isn’t an easy place to govern (ask Bo Xilaijust not the BBC about Bo Xilai) at any time, and Sun was being asked to go in and straighten up the municipality (not just any city) after his predecessor had taken it in the wrong direction.

Party media hadn’t been shy about highlighting various shortcomings in Chongqing for some months now. (Praise, when it did appear, was faint, and tended to focus on minor projects.) When leading Party media calls attention to problems in a given location, it’s a sign that there’s a consensus in the leadership here that governance isn’t proceeding the way Beijing wants it to.

Fixing Chongqing was Sun’s remit, and he appears to have failed at it.

That may not be sexy or headline-grabbing or fit into The Establishment Narrative of leaders who spend all their time looking to take down others simply because they want more power. But given what Party media has indicated, it makes more sense than the notion that it's just Xi being Xi, when that cannot be.

Still, it's a scenario, a hypothesis--and is here labeled as such.

Where the removal of Sun Zhengcai leaves Xi Jinping and his comrades isn’t clear. More indicators may appear—actual pieces of evidence--in the coming days. Until then, anything else is just dirt. 

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Air Up There Isn't The Air Down Here

In recent years, many commentators here have advocated “injecting clearer gas” [风清气] into Chinese politics, purging bad elements “for the purpose of building a cleaner political ecology” [正的政治生态] in the Communist party. That’s become a metaphor in some circles for fighting corruption by getting rid of the stench of sleaze that’s permeated Party ranks, replacing it with a cleaner environment for cadres to operate in, and residents to relate to.

The language used is, as ever, crucial.  Unlike past anticorruption campaigns, the idea isn’t just to remove people but to switch the atmosphere in which politics takes place. That way, the cadres that replace those removed would have to behave otherwise, because they’d be operating in a different environment, in which it’s easier for honest officials to breathe, and dishonest ones would suffocate.

It’s smart thinking, and typical of the debates that mark the Communist party under Xi Jinping. Call it resistance or reluctance, opposition or openness, rectification or restructuring—there are differences under discussion among senior leaders and their advisors about what sort of reform is required for the Party to be able to govern more effectively. The arguments are ongoing, and how and to what end they are resolved will help shape China’s political system.

The problem is that, for at least some local officials, the sort of talk that happens in Beijing-- while crucial for the long term--doesn’t address the small challenges they confront every day here. Many of the problems governments face on the ground here lack easy solutions and have little direct link to ideological matters or grand policy.

Such as the appearance of “black gas” [黑气].

That’s the name for illegal--or at least unregulated and uncertified--propane gas that’s increasingly being delivered to small restaurants in Jiangsu. These establishments, which are often unregulated and uncertified themselves, aren’t large enough to merit delivery from state-operated suppliers, but instead must rely on middlemen who buy half a dozen small canisters which are drained and then refilled, sometimes more than once during a given day.

There’s a local social context here.

Restaurants that have a larger footprint are often the targets of flying squads of inspectors who check for health and safety conditions, because that’s where large families dine out, as well as well-connected business people and officials; their owners depend on reliable delivery from established firms, and have secure schedules.  

Smaller eating establishments, on the other hand, continue to flourish in many cities and districts, townships and counties as migrants have relocated and taken their appetites and often their cuisine with them. These types of restaurants tend to be clustered around apartment complexes that are rented by workers and their families who have neither the time nor the inclination to cook for themselves as they might have done in their home counties. As the service economy in provincial cities and suburbs has proliferated and is increasingly staffed by non-natives (property sales representatives, office staff, installers and repair people), these dining places have a built-in demand for those wanting to eat in, or (increasingly) order for delivery. Getting cooking gas in a timely manner matters greatly to these small restaurants: They lack the place to store the bigger canisters, and larger suppliers simply won’t cater to them when they can get higher fees and more reliable demand from larger establishments.

In short, commercial pressures create situations that outpace the capacity of local authorities to supervise these operations. And there’s little incentive to do so diligently, when these smaller restaurants add services and revenue to the economy. Shutting them down for various violations makes little sense, especially when the immediate result of such action is sometimes local anger.[1]

At the same time, the dearth of oversight can turn unsafe, as happened in Nanjing recently when a canister of bad propane ignited and critically injured 2 people, hurt another 10, and caused the evacuation of damaged properties nearby. Later the same day, local authorities started posting warnings in the neighborhood of the explosion, advising owners and patrons to be aware of the dangers of “black gas”, which, while cheaper and capable of almost immediate delivery, skirts safety regulations because they fall outside the existing scope of city supervision.

Local officials don’t want to be seen as negligent, but they also prefer to avoid being perceived as harming the economy. There’s no real payoff for them (literally and otherwise) in pushing more regular regulation, especially when they lack the staff to do so.

What’s left are campaigns—small-scale safety crusades where inspectors appear to enforce the rules that do exist, as well as remind businesses and customers to take care.

But they know, as every resident here does, that matters will go right back to what they were, once the uniforms depart.

How ideological construction or new anticorruption policies help local officials solve these sorts of challenges isn’t at all clear to many, especially outside of Beijing. It’s not all hot air, but for some at least, it probably seems that way.

[1] Or frustration for nearby residents who have to stomach cooking fumes, higher noise levels, and waste problems when illegal establishments aren’t closed.  

Friday, 7 July 2017

Talk About Pests

Local governance isn’t easy here.

There are flies.

And then there are flies.

In the first instance, the “flies” [苍蝇] are the lower local ranks of the Communist Party, particularly officials in the countryside, engaged in corruption—that is, “flies”, as opposed to “tigers” (political elites here in China).

There’s been renewed attention to local corruption here lately, particularly its spillover. A commentary in Nanjing Daily on Tuesday noted that “some village cadres are not only corrupt, but also arrogant” [一些村干部不仅贪腐,而且相当嚣张]. They exploit farmers, loot poverty alleviation funds, cheat on official expenses, and act less like “village officials than village tyrants” [村官变成村霸]. The author argues that while they may be “small officials, but their greed is gigantic.” [小官巨贪] and “although the power of local village officials is not large, the lack of effective supervision will breed a more serious corruption problem, causing adverse effects among villagers.” Residents who see authorities unable to address low-level graft end up with less trust in local government and in the Party generally, the commentary argues.

One reason for the hubris of village officials, the commentary claims, is that there’s still no clear way to hold them accountable.

For example, there are over 3,000 village party secretaries and directors in Jiangsu; so there aren’t enough investigators in the province’s Commission for Discipline Inspection to inspect their activity. (Left unsaid but surely implied is that investigators have more than enough work in the upper ranks of provincial government here. There’s ample evidence of that locally in recent days.)

At the grassroots level, whistleblowers [举报人] are often retaliated against by local officials. Many villages are run by clans that have dominated for generations, the commentary notes, and have intimidated those who wish to bring about change. There’s an atmosphere of fear for those who want to improve their locality but lack political protection. Everyone in China knows about payback.

Efforts to make village finances more transparent and thereby expose local corruption haven’t shooed away many “flies” either. When records that might indicate graft are released to residents, the essay argues, the accounting is often too complex for many villagers to understand, or the bookkeeping is incomplete at best, rendering inspection useless.

We've been here before. What’s different is that this commentary thinks that “flies” can be swatted and shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of caging tigers—that there are weapons available.

For example, using “Big Data” to supervise village officials, instead of rural residents. Efforts would be made to collect, collate and compare government subsidies (such as poverty alleviation funds) with actual local expenditures, and use those results as one of the main means to evaluate cadre performance, “so that the village officials have no place to hide” [从而让村官贪腐无处遁形]. Discrepancies in these figures would mean no political promotions until inspectors conducted their own investigations, and heavier punishment for those caught cheating than exist currently.

The commentary also argues for greater coordination between government bureaus and Party departments about who gets appointed and elevated in rank. Often, village officials are promoted just because a case couldn't be made about their malfeasance until later in their careers; the warning signs were already there but not shared with the responsible departments. Bad cadres end up getting ahead because not everyone knew they were bad from the beginning, in part because information isn’t shared across agencies and levels. Cooperation can help to crush “flies”.

And those other “flies” mentioned above?

Those would be somewhat different—according to a cartoon and brief discussion on the same editorial page about those “flies”, in this case, 蝇扰--the sorts of flying insects that buzz about, irritate, bite, and can spread disease.

While the commentary on the same page focuses on corruption, the picture and caption are about rumors [谣言]--stories flying around on the hot winds of summer, about fresh food not being so fresh, fruit being dyed or injected with artificial substances, and other purported hazards. According to the caption, such “lies” [掰谎] need to be thoroughly swatted down because they’re an injustice [冤情] to the industry and the consumer, and hazardous in themselves. The State shouldn't let them swarm, and officials need to do something about that.

At the very least, the latter type of fly diverts attention from more crucial tasks of local governance.

And who’s supposed to do the whacking anyway? Is it the authorities, or should it be residents? Both of these editorial forays insist that the response should be top-down, rather than bottom-up. 

Perhaps that's right: Officials should do the clean-up work, not the public. Let swatting, not dialogue, be the solution.

Then again, maybe that’s the reason that one sees so many flies about these days.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

It's A Nice Bike, Just Not In My Front Yard

Some residents in Nanjing got together recently to deal with another challenge of shared-bikes in the city.

Whether or not the bikes should be banned from residential compounds.

Last Friday, the Yuhuatai District Yuhua Street Flower Temple Community [雨花台区雨花街道花神庙小区] convened a special meeting to hear residents’ concerns about the use of shared-bikes in their specific compound.

This gathering is another step in city authorities’ ongoing efforts to try to manage the shared-bike phenomenon in Nanjing. Like other meetings here, this was democracy with Chinese characteristics. Three residents from the community were chosen to represent different views within the compound.

One view was that shared-bikes had to be left outside the compound, possibly in already allocated areas on public avenues nearby.

Another option aired was to seek specific spaces outside for bikes that could be used by residents, instead of simply leaving transport outside on the streets as others already do. That would rid residents of the temptation to park a bike in the compound to access more easily.

Another representative argued that there should be rules and regulations for those bringing shared-bikes into the community, with residents organizing patrols “to strengthen publicity and patrol management, encouraging the civilized use of shared bicycles.” [加强宣传和巡逻管理,文明使用共享单车] That proposal included the community having its own shared-bike spaces within the compound, though bicycles parked there wouldn’t necessarily be returned there, so as to make sure “to prevent sharing from becoming exclusive” [防止共享变独享]--a sign that local socialism is surely not on its last wheels.

All agreed that with over 200 or so shared-bikes being parked overnight in the community, there was a need to reach clarification on the role that the property management office should play—something that the local Party representative said was becoming a more important issue where shared-bikes were concerned. Property management companies in Nanjing are perhaps better than in some other cities and counties, but the track record of many is uneven at best.

As is always the case here in China (especially in Nanjing, where every resident seems to either work or have worked in the local government, or knows someone who is or has), there were officials present for “face-to-face exchanges” [面对面交流]. During this session, representatives from the District Urban Management Bureau, Housing Bureau “and other functional departments and street leaders” [职能部门和街道领导] also attended to share views of the local government. Like residents themselves, local officials are scrambling to find solutions.

Indeed, the account acknowledged that Nanjing government “has not yet introduced a clear approach to managing” the problem. The article also noted that, for their part, “residents in the end did not form a unified opinion, but they had enhanced understanding and tolerance” of the situation [但彼此间却增进了理解和包容]. For now, residents agreed to have the property management company take a more active role in addressing the issue.

It may not be the ultimate solution or the best way to go forward, but it’s a further sign of just how start-and-stop policies are these days as the wheels here keep turning.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

We Welcome Comments, Criticism, Especially Contained And Constrained

While many foreign observers of China think that the country needs democracy, many Chinese citizens would be pleased if there was greater transparency [透明度].

In Nanjing at least, local residents are getting more evidence of the latter at work--construction work, to be precise.

But the actual goal and role of this transparency are where matters get complicated.

Nanjing’s ongoing water renewal project that began last year is one example of the government's strategy to be more open about local construction. Citizens were invited to leave comments; to contact site supervisors with questions or concerns; and to peruse various postings that carried information about the purpose and objectives of the construction.

That approach is being replicated in at least one other major project—the widening of an important North-South Road in the eastern part of the city.

On the one hand, the purpose of this transparency seems to be clear. By telling residents the tasks and the timeline of the project, local officials believe that property owners and renters will see the inconvenience as merely temporary; that specific concerns (such as noise or dust) will be raised with the appropriate company representative on-site for response; and that rumors won’t take root. This isn’t about maintaining social stability by stopping protests but attending to local society through better governance. It's more than a little impressive.

Transparency also works to hold the construction company doing the work accountable. Instead of residents complaining to the local government and expecting official intervention, minor problems that can be resolved at the project site by contacting the people at the listed phone numbers. That approach improves efficiency, lessens the need for administrative oversight, and casts officials as problem-solvers instead of problem-creators. It also ensures that local construction firms stay on the right road themselves—that is, they don’t take the awarding of contracts for granted, and treat projects not as prizes but assignments to be completed.

But there’s a larger aim at work here which isn’t so—well, transparent.

Local governments in China—Nanjing and others in Jiangsu included—are known for favoring construction firms with close ties to powerful developers. Those developers often have connections with officials. That’s certainly been the case with housing projects in recent years, and now that local infrastructure projects are receiving more funding by governments interested in attracting and retaining the right kind of residents, there’s concern in some circles that the same outfits will benefit.

That’s to say, the corruption that’s here won’t be going away unless something’s done about it. So while Beijing hunts “tigers” there and abroad, Nanjing is after local game.

To address corruption in the construction industry, Nanjing government has “started special action” [整治专项行动序幕] to “tightly grasp the outstanding problems in the realm of construction engineering projects” [紧紧抓住工程建设领域的突出问题] and “combat all kinds of illegal acts” [打击各类违法行为].

In other words, at the same time that authorities here are holding construction firms to account by increasing public supervision, they’re also launching a local rectification campaign, sending inspection teams into offices and job sites, looking into bidding processes, and how materials and equipment are purchased.

Is this a coordinated policy with the aim of reining in firms whose conduct will no longer be tolerated?

That’s likely, because the announcement of the campaign also mentioned “enlarging the role of guided public opinion” [加大舆论引导力度] and “striving to create a good atmosphere for the masses to support and participate” [努力在社会营造群众支持参与].

That may seem to be boilerplate language about “the masses”, but in this context, it’s significant because it indicates recognition in official circles that top-down regulation isn’t sufficient to fight local corruption. Residents will provide pressure from below to help oversee implementation of construction projects, while officials will supervise from above. 

At the same time, there’s just not enough interest in official circles in letting the public play a more direct role in fighting graft. Commenting on policy shortcomings is clearly welcomed, even encouraged in Nanjing, though residents are expected to provide general approval and to dissent only on the details. 

Allowing residents to express specific discontent while seeking to steer public sentiment towards approved targets reminds all that China remains a State-directed society. Transparency of the sort being practiced in Nanjing these days may seem to some as a door to democracy, but it’s far more likely to remain merely a window.