With something to envy, you lose
Gansu is a province located in the far northwest of the country on the borders of Mongolia and also one of the poorest regions in China. Individual income is at the bottom out of China’s 31 prefectures. Li Xixin, the deputy director of the Management Committee of a high-tech zone in Lanzhou, the largest city in Gansu, has a doctorate from China’s elite Tsinghua University.
He was the first to post writing parsing over the meaning of the ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative that Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled in October 2013, envisioning the creation of a maritime and land pathway connecting Asia, Europe and Africa on the Gaige Neichan, an internal reference material accessible only to senior government officials. The 40-year-old bureaucrat came across as sharp and confident.
I asked why, with such an impressive academic record, he was stuck in such a remote place. He shrugged it off. “Why not? This is the place where [former] President Hu Jintao worked.”
I asked whether he, too, aspired to be a president one day. He laughed.
“No, it’s just the style of the [Communist] party to make the bureaucrats work their way up from the provincial periphery to the center.”
Hu, who presided over China from 2002 to 2012, started in the civil service in Gansu at 32 and moved onto Guizhou and Tibet before finally entering central politics. Current President Xi began his bureaucratic career in small coastal cities before he ascended to senior party positions in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai.
Xi governed over 150 million people before he was groomed to succeed Hu Jintao. He was tested and proven in his capacity to govern a sizable country before he rose to power in presiding over the world’s most populated nation.
To join the senior ranks, a Chinese official must go through and pass a rigorous screening at each step of the cadre ladder. Chinese bureaucrats, therefore, cannot spare time to mingle in the political circle. They are too busy trying to build a career record. It may be why Li, even in the most remote post, is in high spirits.
The Chinese Communist Party works discreetly and ubiquitously. It keeps a constant watch over its 8,000 members. It educates and trains them. They work silently as invisible hands.
I recently learned that Chen Hai, who returned home after finishing his tenure as a counselor last year at the Chinese Embassy in Seoul, is now overseeing foreign affairs in Nanning, the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous region in southern China. I called him up worried that he might have been demoted. But he was unconcerned and told me he had a lot of work because Guangxi served as a gateway to Southeast Asia. He added, “It’s all part of the Guazhi system.”
Guazhi is the unique cadre training system in the Chinese party and government. Public officials must serve two to three years in prefectural offices before moving up to a higher level. The tradition is part of decentralization efforts and stems from the practical mind set that field experience can ensure efficiency in policy-making in managerial positions.
Because Chinese diplomats have all been posted in places away from thriving and developed cities, they frankly tell others that China is still a developing country and has far to go when they are serving overseas missions. Policies are therefore well rooted in that reality. The Chinese ways are very different from Korean officialdom, where service in provincial areas is deemed a disgrace and a demotion for career diplomats.
Canada-born Daniel Bell, who teaches at Tsinghua University, finds China’s strength in the Communist Party’s cadre grooming system. The party seeks out young talent and grooms them to be leaders. He believes it to be a model case for political meritocracy to recruit capable and virtuous people for officialdom and statesmanship.
Such a system is possible only because China has a single-party system. Elections do not exist. Unlike democracy where state and political leaders are elected, a single-party system can be sustained only through internal reform. Corruption and ill effects can be pervasive. What the party says must be upheld without question. Diversity is ignored. Universal values like democracy, human rights and welfare should come second. If reform eases, corruption spreads.
Yet, we cannot help but envy China’s effective cadre system because of the dysfunction in our own. We must go through another confirmation hearing to pick Lee Wan-koo’s successor. Over the past two years, we have seen three prime ministerial nominees bow out following their confirmation hearings, and two resigned from office. We are now skeptical as to whether the confirmation hearing does any good in selecting a capable leader. We find ourselves in a pitiful state now.
Maybe China could be better at running politics in addition to an economy.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 4, Page 24
*The author is the director of the JoongAng Ilbo China Institute.
by Han Woo-duk