A few remarks on Guangzhou’s “accountability system”

By David Bandurski — It is no big secret that policies made with the best of intentions can be foolishly unworkable, and perhaps party leaders in the city of Guangzhou should be given the benefit of the doubt — about their intentions, that is. Earlier this week, top city leaders in Guangzhou rolled out measures for a bold new “accountability system” designed to “further systematize” good behavior among cadres.

The only problem, as a few Chinese commentaries have pointed out, is that under these “new” measures, just as under the old status quo, the mandate to supervise rests entirely in the hands of the cadres themselves.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of news coverage of Guangzhou's "accountability system." Gov't document at right says officials will be held accountable for not accepting media supervision. Thought bubble says: "I have to publicly apologize too . . . "]

But let us assume for a moment that the Guangzhou measures are preferable to, say, nothing. We can at least argue — can’t we? — that they make more explicit statements about the kinds of behavior leaders should be held accountable for. [The full text of the Guangzhou document is available here].

Take Article 2, for example, which specifies in general — I realize that’s an oxymoron, but it fits — the various grounds on which a leader may be held accountable for negligent behavior:

1. Formulation and promulgation of decisions or orders that violate the party constitution and other party regulations, and/or [violate] laws and regulations.
2. The making of policy decisions outside one’s scope of authority.
3. Violation of procedures in the selection of cadres, or serious misuse or abuse of employees.
4. Failure to act in accordance with procedural rules in carrying out major policy decisions.
5. Failure to act in accordance with regulations that call for evidentiary hearings, public hearings or other forms of opinion-seeking in carrying out projects that have broad social implications directly touching on the interests of the masses.
6. Failure to make public information on policy decisions that should be made public in accordance with regulations.

Further down, Article 11 deals with the “acceptance of supervision” by officials, and defines four more situations in which they are to be held accountable for being naughty:

1. Failure to accept or cooperate with intra-party supervision, legal supervision, democratic supervision, supervision by public opinion ["watchdog journalism"] and supervision by the masses.
2. Inciting, leading or tolerating employees of one’s department in suppression of, tampering with or opposition to supervisory inspections or case investigations, or physical acts of revenge against those responsible for filing cases, informants, plaintiffs or witnesses.
3. Failure to execute decisions rendered by the People’s Court or administrative decisions.
4. Failure, without proper cause, to rectify violations of the law or party discipline after opinions and comments have been rendered by superior organs, discipline inspection organs or administrative supervision departments.

The basic problem with the Guangzhou measures is evident if you give even cursory thought to any of the specifications listed above.

It is already a serious problem, for example, for officials to “violate procedures in the selection of cadres.” Nevertheless, it happens all the time. Similarly, overstepping one’s line of authority is by definition a breach of responsibility — that’s why the lines are there to begin with.

What good is an “accountability system” if it is nothing more than a verbal statement of the obvious? If it establishes no real cross-checks?

Giving Guangzhou leaders the benefit of the doubt, we can see from the second group of specifics above that they are in fact including external forms of supervision in their “accountability system.” They talk about “legal supervision,” “supervision by the masses,” and about media supervision, or “supervision by public opinion.”

But it is here especially that the tougher institutional questions come to the fore. Clearly, supervision, insofar as it means placing real checks on power, demands some level of independence from those carrying out supervision — and that requires some form of institutional reform, whether it be a more independent legal system or political protections for more independent journalism.

None of these nagging issues come up in the Guangzhou measures, and this is where Chinese critics have cautiously found fault this week.

But we’ll start out with a more positive take by Xu Xunlei (徐迅雷) that appeared in CNHubei’s Donghu Commentary column (东湖评论) on March 18, and dealt with the relationship between officials and the media.

Xu’s column begins with a quote from Abraham Lincoln, the Chinese translation of which cleverly employs the adverbial phrase jianding buyi de (坚定不移地), which Chinese President Hu Jintao used at the 17th Party Congress in October 2007 in language about the need to develop socialist democratic politics:

“I believe resolutely in the people. If we allow them to know the truth then we can rely upon them to resolve any crisis facing the nation. The important thing is to answer them truthfully.” These words were left to us by the great American president Abraham Lincoln.

“Answering [the people] truthfully” is [a concept] inseparable from the media. Transmitting information down [to the people] is work that requires the media; The expression of public opinion comes from the media; monitoring by society cannot happen without the media. The power of the media and the news is an important extension of soft power. In the modern age of globalized information, the relationship between officials and the media must grow ever closer.

Here is a bit of good news: Guangzhou’s “Provisional Measures for Accountablity Among Guangzhou Party and Government Cadres” state that [leaders will be] held accountable in cases where personnel are misused, sudden-breaking events are not reported, are reported to late or are not reported truthfully, and in cases where information about policy decisions is not made public in accordance with regulations (Southern Metropolis Daily, March 17). On the question of accepting supervision, [the measures] state clearly that cases where party and government officials do not accept or do not cooperate with media supervision will fall within the scope of accountability. Relevant experts have said that this move clearly shows the enlightened and progressive stance of government offices [in Guangzhou] (New Express, March 17).

This is happy and welcome news. Before the face of public opinion, we can see and touch political democracy (政治民主). Guangdong province is on the front lines of economic reform, and it makes sense that it should be one step ahead in the building of an accountability system for party and government leaders . . .

If our government is to make the transition for a control-based system to a service-based system, it must demand that officials put a premium not on power but on accountability. Accepting supervision should be a clear institutional responsibility. Shanxi province has already chalked one up for progress [on this front]. The attitude toward the handling of the February 22 gas explosion at the Dunlan Mine was essentially one of openness and transparency toward reporters, unlike in the past, when the first thought governments had after mine disasters was to prevent reporting and cover up the truth. Media from outside [Shanxi] said: “This time around it’s completely different. The local authorities employed a high-level of transparency in handling [the disaster], and when reporters showed their press cards to police at the entrance, they were immediately granted entry and were free to move about the area . . . ”

The tone of Xu’s editorial is almost jubilant. One must suppose that he is either genuinely optimistic about changes in Guangzhou, or feels that the change in tone is positive and therefore deserves boisterous praise, whatever the outcome might be in practice.

The final line of Xu’s essay suggests, however, that he has woefully misread the measures, having confused the text with institutional reality. He writes exultantly that, in Guangzhou, “the system has determined that ‘accepting media supervision’ is the first choice.”

Begging Xu’s pardon, but the “system” has done no such thing. The measures no more ensure acceptance of media supervision by Guangzhou officials than China’s constitutional language about free expression (Chapter 2, Article 35) ensures citizens can publicly speak their minds.

One of the best criticisms along these lines came yesterday in the commentary pages at Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News, where Pan Hongqi (潘洪其) wrote that what media supervision required was not “acceptance” by party officials but real institutional protections for journalists:

According to some relevant experts, these regulations in Guangzhou underscored the importance of supervision by public opinion ["watchdog journalism" or "media supervision], and reflected the progressiveness and enlightened attitude of the government. Still, the demands in the “Measures” that officials accept and cooperate with media supervision are still enough to make one feel unsure.

When media carry out supervision of officials, the relationship between media and officials is one of monitor to monitored. When it comes to specific incidences or events, if those who are monitored are confident there are no problems they will have no fear of being monitored, and of course they will openly accept supervision and offer up their cooperation. That sort of supervision is quite safe for those being monitored, and the monitor also feels quite obliging, so the relationship on both sides is quite accommodating and harmonious. But the case more frequently is that officials either worry that this or that small problem will be uncovered by the media, or they are determined at whatever cost to cover up some major scandal. In such cases it is clearly difficult for them to accept and actively cooperate with media supervision.

In the first case above, the official has no problems that prevent him from accepting and cooperating with media supervision (and some officials will artfullyl use active “cooperation” to turn so-called supervision into “positive news reports” about themselves). Therefore, regulations about “officials being held accountable for not accepting or cooperating with media supervision” have no real meaning for them. Moreover, in the second case mentioned above, the fear among officials that they be held accountable for not accepting or cooperating with media supervision is much smaller than the fear they have of being held accountable or being disciplined by the party discipline inspection apparatus as a result of a scandal unearthed through media supervision. In the vast majority of cases, officials will opt against accepting or cooperating with media supervision because in their view the costs of not accepting supervision are much smaller than the cost of a media expose of wrongdoing. In this situation regulations about “officials being held accountable for not accepting or cooperating with media supervision” will be equally meaningless.

In point of fact, whether officials accept and cooperate with media supervision or not is not greatly important. The real important question is whether or not media can confidently and firmly carry out supervision of officials. Supposing media can be bold in conducting supervision, then they can simply include the fact of an official’s “failure to accept and cooperate” in their report — this is itself a form of media supervision.

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 20, 2009, 4:47pm HK]

2 Comments to “A few remarks on Guangzhou’s “accountability system””

  1. [...] Most journalistic opinion on the Guangzhou city’s policies, further summed up by David Bandurski here, while not fooled about the real change on offer, ranged from cautiously optimistic to jubilant [...]

  2. [...] • Kaderne i Guangzhou skal opføre sig bedre, overholde lovene og være bedre til at informere offentligheden. Og hvem skal holde øje med, at de nu også overholder den nye lov? Det skal de selv. Og det er jo ikke supersmart, som David Bandurski skriver. [...]

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