Cai Qi, the new Communist Party boss of the Beijing municipality and a newly promoted member of the Politburo, has “ignited three torches” shortly after he assumed office.
The “three torches” refer to his relentless and indiscriminate drive to evict migrant workers from the Chinese capital, demolish all illegal structures and advertising boards across the city, and ban the burning of low-quality coal briquettes for residential heating.
However, Cai’s iron-fist policy in cleaning up Beijing has provoked a widespread backlash from the domestic and foreign media, and may eventually take a considerable toll on his political career.
To many foreigners who aren’t familiar with the way the Chinese officialdom does things, Cai’s campaign, which could affect the daily lives of tens of thousands of people, might appear so poorly planned and executed.
However, for those who have lived in the mainland long enough to understand the mindset of party bureaucrats and the pattern in which they execute orders from their supreme leader, what Cai is doing makes perfect sense.
As a Chinese saying goes, “Make your decision fast, give your guarantee fast, and when you get promoted, leave fast.” In China, there is no such thing as public consultation, accountability, oversight or channel for complaints when it comes to governance.
It is undeniable that “ruling with one voice” is highly efficient. Yet the absence of oversight and accountability also means whenever things go wrong, there is no way average citizens who are at the receiving end of bad policies can make their voices heard and air their grievances.
Take Cai Qi as an example. Before being promoted to the position of deputy director of the secretariat of the Communist Party’s National Security Commission, he spent much of his career as provincial chief in Fujian and Zhejiang.
As we all know, the party’s provincial chiefs are notoriously condescending, arrogant and autocratic, and Cai was no exception.
From Cai’s perspective, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what he has done in Beijing, and the bad press he’s been getting is only the result of the incompetence of his subordinates and nitpicking by overseas media.
Cai may sincerely believe that he has been misunderstood and grievously wronged by the public and the media because all he did was to replicate in Beijing the approach he used in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces that worked perfectly.
He came under fire not because of the policies themselves, but because the media and the public are giving extra attention to whatever is going on in the capital city.
However, it is not just the “nitpicking” media and netizens but also prominent academics like Professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University who have raised serious doubts about Cai’s sweeping and relentless measures to clean up Beijing.
In particular, Prof. Sun questioned the “source of power” of the government.
In a recent article posted on his Weixin account, which has since been removed by the authorities, Prof. Sun asked: “When it comes to issues in which so much public interest is at stake, who is responsible for decision-making? How exactly does the decision-making process work? And when something goes wrong, who should be held accountable?”
He cited the highly controversial and poorly conceived “coal ban” in big cities, and questioned how come the authorities were unable to foresee the scenario in which swiftly enforcing the coal ban without securing sufficient natural gas supply would leave tens of thousands of households freezing in the cold winter.
He said this is something that even an average housewife can anticipate to happen. “Did our officials even study and discuss the issue at all?” the professor asked.
On the other hand, he also questioned the legal grounds behind tearing down the advertising boards across Beijing that were previously approved by the authorities.
As to Prof. Sun’s doubts about the government’s source of power and its decision-making process, perhaps even secretary Cai would be unable to answer. Maybe the only explanation he could come up with is that his source of power comes from the paramount party leaders.
As long as the “source of government power” in the mainland remains unclear, there will always be tens of thousands of other Cais ruling across China.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 15
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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