Chinese city's raters are the residents

Program evaluates government

failing officials must apologize

March 04, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ZHUHAI, China - The head of the city's Cultural Bureau, Gu Jinqi, sits uncomfortably at his desk. A few forelocks flop down across his slick forehead. A pallor covers his face.

"There is a consensus that the Cultural Bureau received poor marks this year," the news anchor on Zhuhai TV 1 says in an ominous voice-over. Sitting on camera across from a reporter, Gu confesses his sins to this city of more than 1 million along China's southern coast.

"It is true, we didn't do a lot of our work well," says Gu, who promises that his department will crack down more on pornography and illegal publications. "I'm confident I will do better this year."

It is a remarkable scene in this authoritarian country where public servants often show little concern for the public. But on Zhuhai television, it is becoming an annual event: bureaucrats publicly apologizing for doing a bad job.

The self-criticisms are part of an unusual project to improve government efficiency here where ordinary people are permitted to rate and criticize officials. The program, which began in 1999, is called "Ten Thousand People Evaluating the Government." It includes the distribution of thousands of questionnaires, a best-to-worst public ranking of the city's 63 bureaus, and a media center where reporters investigate complaints that come in over a hot line.

In the wake of harsh ratings, at least 18 middle managers have been demoted or transferred in the city's land planning bureau alone. Some have lost their year-end bonuses.

Like Gu, department heads with poor rankings must go on TV and apologize. If their bureaus receive two years of dismal ratings, they will be fired, officials say.

While some Chinese cities have initiated limited neighborhood elections and public evaluations, Zhuhai's efficiency project seems to be the most systematic of its kind. The experiment tries to address one of the great problems facing China: how to build a more pluralistic and responsive government in a country with at least 2,000 years of authoritarian rule.

Despite tremendous economic progress over the past two decades, China's political system has stalled. The nation's top leader, Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, has vowed that the country will never adopt Western-style democracy. Yet, the government has failed to come up with an alternative to the current hybrid of capitalism and communism, sometimes wryly known as Market-Leninism.

In their own quiet way, the leaders of Zhuhai are forging a path they hope leads to a more efficient form of government that incorporates public opinion but not necessarily electoral democracy.

"It's an important format for Chinese-style democratic development to give people supervision of the government," says Huang Shusheng, who oversees the program. He adds, though, that "this system and elections are two different matters."

China's Communist Party is notorious for launching grandiose campaigns that often turn out to be little more than stagecraft. The Zhuhai program, though, seems to be having some impact.

Most people, including foreign investors, admit they don't know the project by name. Yet, many also say they've noticed recent improvements in public service here.

Locals seem to agree that just a few years ago Zhuhai's government was pretty dreadful. Bureaucrats spent their days lounging about reading newspapers and drinking tea from glass jars. Sometimes they deliberately failed to tell citizens what documents they needed, just to be mean.

People stood in line for hours at the driver's license bureau as clerks serviced their friends through the back door. To get applications approved by the land bureau, customers had to provide small gifts and invite officials to meals.

Today, some of the city's more infamous departments seem to be doing better.

Customers say the land bureau, which residents rated among Zhuhai's three worst agencies in 1999, has a new, more helpful staff. The office now provides charts explaining each step in the application process and strict deadlines for approvals. Service has reportedly improved at the tax bureau as well.

In the past, "if you asked questions, they didn't pay attention to you," said Li Xiaoyan, 32, an accountant with an agricultural export company. Now, "their attitude is much better."

Like many of the changes in China over the past two decades, the decision to revamp Zhuhai's government was driven by economic necessity.

Zhuhai is a port city along the mouth of Pearl River and looks out across the islands that dot the South China Sea. By Chinese municipal standards, it is lovely. While many of the nation's cities are dusty, polluted and architecturally indistinguishable, Zhuhai enjoys relatively clean air and a wooded, hilly coast.

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