Xie Zhenhua’s “Unsystematic” Return and Other Curious Moves

The opinion pages of Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily live by a credo that one of its editors has phrased thus: “Almost anything can be written. It just depends on how you write it.” That may or may not explain the sharp turn Southern Metropolis takes with the case of Xie Zhenhua’s political resurrection this week. The paper’s not alone in wondering about the significance out loud.

Xie, formerly head of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), was the foremost political casualty in the Songhua River crisis in November, 2005. Officially, he resigned his post. (Another would-be fall-guy, a Jilin city vice-mayor, opted for suicide.) But in recent weeks, Xie got a new job as vice-minister of the National Development Planning Commission or NDRC – a ministerial Goliath to SEPA’s David. There Xie’s now in charge of energy conservation and environmental policy. Once the move was publicized this past weekend, domestic media pundits began poking around for an explanation. On the policy front, Xie’s installation would appear symbolic of the fact the leadership is finally pushing something the so-called “GDP” and “Green GDP” lobbies in government can agree on: saving energy. But the personnel maneuver begs the question of exactly what kind of political statement is being made, by whom, why, and so on. Alas, answers are not forthcoming. Hence the following editorials, which instead critique the very opaqueness of official appointments in China while calling for a system that’s more transparent and democratic. China Daily on Wednesday chalked up the controversy surrounding Xie’s reassignment to a debate about “recycling officials”. But others take the issue deeper.

In Southern Metropolis on Wednesday, “Linda” ÔºàÊûóËææÔºâ, a duo of U.S.-based pentagenarian transplants who publish books on the mainland about the U.S. political system, had this to say of Xie’s comeback:

…Officials are people too. Everyone is liable to make mistakes, even serious mistakes. But that is not to say that someone who errs must be beaten to death in a single blow, never to obtain another chance to continue to work or live, never to gain forgiveness. When a person’s mistakes, or even sins, enter the public arena, the person should be punished based on the law and the norms of officialdom, but afterward should have the chance to get back up again.

But the issue here rests with the fact that in a democratic society, elected officials are chosen by the public for the service of all the people. How to elect them is decided by pre-existing legal regulations. The constitution is one such arrangement. Ranking officials are elected by popular vote, and the officials of certain positions are appointed by the leadership, and then they get approval from a legislature elected by the people. There’s an established procedure for everything. As long as it conforms to the procedures, then there is nothing to dispute.

Therefore, in a democratic society, “political fortunes” are determined by the will of the people. There are some officials who haven’t made any mistakes. It’s just that the people feel the official is “not appropriate”. There’s no need for any justification. It’s just that they no longer vote for him. His “political fortunes” simply come to an end. Even an administrative official who has committed a mistake, after he accepts blame and resigns, still can be reappointed by higher-ups. There are normally public hearings to review this sort of nomination. Legislators are representatives of the people, and hence they also represent the public in making reviews and decisions. Once someone is nominated, if the people do not approve, they can express that through their representatives. This is a logical reflection of the government’s source of legitimacy, and reflects the principle that officials are but servants of the people.

Of course, under such circumstances, the personal political aspirations of some officials, and even the ideals of serving the people, will be impacted. For example, Clinton’s former vice president Al Gore, after Clinton’s eight years in office were up, prepared complacently for the campaign to “upgrade” to himself to president. The president of the United States is a “working” office of real power, while the vice president is just an idle job. After standing idle for eight years in the prime of his life, Gore of course wanted to try to manage affairs. In that famous campaign of 2000, he was almost evenly matched with his election rival George W. Bush. The vote count was close to the point that it led to a controversy that had to be settled by the Supreme Court. We remember Gore, conceding defeat, appeared a moving and tragic figure. His supporters wished him to run “one more time.” Under the circumstances of the time, it seemed as though Gore running “one more time” was a matter of course. But four years later, practically nobody thought he still had hope.

Today, seven years on, Gore has long since announced that he would not run in 2008. Because he himself calculated that he had no hopes of winning. Although Gore was once the honorable vice president, after his term expired, he could only adjust his plan in life based on the will of the people. He could not disregard the will of the people by sticking to his political aspirations. To an individual, this may be a big loss. The people may have made an error in judgment as well, and because of it lost a good public servant to serve them. That is to say, the democratic system is not a perfect system; it’s just a better system. Such a system was set up to protect the principle that the government is an administrative organ elected by the public, and elected officials are public servants. Conversely, if officials staying or leaving was entirely decided by the wishes of the officials themselves, or was for one stratum of officials to decide, then the potential risks could be seen at a glance.

In a democratic country, the movements of officials also arouse public concern. But few people get so excited about rumors spread about official appointments. Because ultimately, everything must be transparent, must comply with the statutory procedures. Official appointments cannot possibly spread privately first, and become reality in the end, no matter whether or not the people agree. Herein lies the difference: whether or not people have the room to express opinions and alter outcomes. In the past, Chinese officials had no age limit upon them. They went into posts but not out, and no one could put them into question. The situation now, by comparison, is a form of progress. Officials move into and out of posts with certain restrictions. The media also have certain space to raise doubts. However, we perhaps also need to realize that the current situation is just a transition. The system still has large strides to make on the road to democracy.

So perhaps “Linda” oversimplifies the mechanics of U.S. administrations past and present. But then again, why complicate the comparison?

Frequent political commentator Zhu Shugu was not taken aback by Xie’s return, either. In a piece published in slightly different forms in Nanjing’s Modern Express(Áé∞‰ª£Âø´Êä•) and Xi’an’s Huashang Bao (ÂçéÂïÜÊä•) on Monday. Zhu notes Xie’s is not a unique case. After being sacked over the SARS cover-up, he points out, the aborted Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong took charge of the North-South Water Project, while the former chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation, Ma Fucai, also recovered following the gas well explosion in 2003. Ma was reassigned as deputy of the State Energy Office under the NDRC in 2005. Zhu continues:

However, one problem that must be faced is, now that it’s no longer an uncommon phenomenon for resigned officials to resurface in the political arena, it should not go without the building of a relevant system.

Xie Zhenhua once enjoyed a good reputation. Perhaps because of this, once Xie Zhenhua resigned, not only did public opinion (ËàÜËÆ∫) infer that he would reemerge after a few years. There were also scholars who predicted that “Xie Zhenhua still had an opportunity to stage a comeback.” Whether sentimentally or rationally, Xie Zhenhua’s return is nothing for people to get stirred up over. But under the normal conditions of political life, an official who took the initiative to shoulder responsibility and thus automatically gave up his job should not have his political future inferred by public opinion or “predicted” by scholars. It cannot be said that the inferences of public opinion and scholarly predictions are entirely groundless. However, a comeback that depends on inferences and predictions alone does not in fact represent the genuine will of the people. Because only after the will of the people is solidified through a system can it be transformed into operable measures.

In fact, no matter how much sympathy Xie Zhenhua won by taking blame and resigning, he nevertheless was acting honestly upon the “working regulation on selecting and appointing party cadres and government leaders”. Section 59 of the regulations make clear the scope and definition of taking blame upon oneself and resigning. Despite the fact that it’s still a rare and precious thing for an official as senior as Xie Zhenhua to take the initiative to tender his resignation, when compared to the heavy losses caused by official negligence, after all, he was not treated unjustly. In this sense, Xie Zhenhua resigning because of the Songhua River contamination was the misfortune of one individual, but it nevertheless safeguarded the solemnity of the system. But with regard to Xie Zhenhua staging a comeback, while it’s fortunate for the individual to reemerge in an important post, it’s nevertheless unfortunate for the system.

It would be a waste to never again use an able official who accidentally makes an error, whether from the perspective of society or that individual. Moreover, to take blame and resign is to bear the moral responsibility, and is different from someone who is directly responsible for an accident being reprimanded according to party discipline and state laws. In a sense, it’s politically rational to allow for the return, at an appropriate time, of an official who performs with outstanding integrity and talent but due to a sudden event takes the blame. But it needs to be made clear that if there is no scientific system to support it, and if arbitrariness displaces strict procedures, then the solemnity and authority of the official accountability system will be fatally consumed.

Having a system for officials who resign to come back opposite a system of accountability is not only necessary for the public, it’s also longed for by officials themselves. No matter whether officials are coming out of retirement or are newly promoted, those empowered through institutionalized procedures clearly conduct their duties with greater confidence than those who gain power through abnormal procedures. At the same time, a set of conditions and procedures for officials returning to power will make those officials who do not meet the conditions utterly convinced of the fact.

We already have a relatively complete system for selecting and appointing officials and for holding officials accountable, but a system for officials to return is a blank space. The gap should be filled as soon as possible.

And so long as we’re on the subject of accountability and mystery comings and goings China Business Post earlier this week ran this truncated investigation into the corruption purge of the food and drug administration’s top officials. It hints that major scandals involving faulty pharmaceuticals in 2005-2006 might have thrown the spotlight on the SFDA’s trade in its own new internationally recognized inspection standards. See also this probe just out in Sanlian Lifeweek.

Finally, Caijing magazine takes a shot in the dark this week at the matter of Shandong deputy party chief Du Shicheng, who was dismissed late last month for “serious violation of discipline”. Caijing’s investigative reporters head to Qingdao and come away hypothesizing that the debonair former mayor, who built many a “political achievement” project, sent local GDP figures and housing prices soaring, and envisioned the host city of Olympic sailing in 2008 becoming a “Shanghai of the north”, was essentially done in by his own ambitions. Du’s dedication to the debunked modus operandi of go-go growth, as portrayed by Caijing, recalls a fallen peer, Chen Liangyu.

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.