Re-evaluating Local Officials Key to China's Reforms
Image Credit: flickr/ INABA Tomoaki

Re-evaluating Local Officials Key to China's Reforms

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According to an article in Xinhua, the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China is changing the way local officials are evaluated and tabbed for promotion. In a circular, the department announced that “gross regional product (GRP) and its growth rates should not be the only main indices for the evaluation of local officials’ work achievements, and charts with these data must be banned.” Instead, evaluations of local officials should be based on more intangible factors such as “the integration of sustainable economic development, people’s livelihoods, social harmony and ecological protection.” In other words, China’s central government is looking for results which “stand the test of time and of the people.”

Rather than rewarding economic development at all costs, the Organization Department has decided to punish those who trample over the environment or the national good on their way to a higher GRP. “Those who do things and make decisions obtrusively that result in huge losses to the country, harm people’s benefits or are a severe waste of resources or cause ecological damage should be put on record and subject to disciplinary punishments — even if they have left their posts,” the circular said. It’s a sharp about-face from the previous system, which would often overlook environmental or social issues if the economy was booming.

Reuters highlighted the aspect of the announcement that promises to judge local governments on their debt. Local government debt may be as high as 20 trillion RMB (nearly $3.3 trillion) according to some estimates, and is at least as high as 9.7 trillion RMB ($1.6 trillion). Making this issue part of the evaluation system should help cut down on the problem. But while local government debt is a serious issue for China, it’s still an economic measure, albeit a very different one than currently used to evaluate local government officials. If Chinese media reports are correct, the new evaluation system could have even more extensive repercussions at the environmental and social levels.

Chinese media reports emphasize the environmental measures that will now be an important part of local government evaluations. If true, this could be a major turning point in China’s fight against pollution. While China’s government has emphasized reducing pollution in its recent “five year plans,” many times these efforts never trickled down to the local government level. When government officials were evaluated solely on economic growth in their regions, they had little incentive to upset potential business investors by insisting upon strict emissions regulations or the proper disposal of industrial waste. As Chinese environmental activist Ma Jun told the Christian Science Monitor in 2012, “Environmental agencies in China are hamstrung by local officials who put economic growth ahead of environmental protection.” The local officials took their priorities from Beijing. Now that the central government is changing its focus, local officials will too.

If, as the reports say, local government officials will now be judged based on how well they protect the environment, it would provide a major incentive to crack down on pollution. China Daily reported back in November that “resource consumption” and “environmental cost” were at the top of the list for new evaluation criteria. Certainly this would give local officials a reason to make sure their town, country, or province cuts down on both total energy use and all kinds of pollution.

Besides protecting the environment, there’s another important consideration within the new evaluation standards: “social harmony.” This in itself is nothing new; the need for a “harmonius society” was a catchphrase of the last Chinese leadership under Hu Jintao. However, there are signs that China could be changing its interpretation of “social harmony,” which would explain the use of the slightly different term.

In the past, Chinese officials, especially at the local level, maintained “harmony” by suppressing all forms of dissent rather than by addressing complaints. As with environmental issues, the local governments took their priorities from the evaluation system used by the Party. Local officials were judged on how many people from their district submitted complaints under China’s formal petition system. In response, many local governments have employed so-called “interceptors” to make sure those who have grievances never reach the capital. In addition, many of the petitioners’ complaint involve illegal seizures of land by the local government, which in turn was driven by the need for local officials to boost economic growth at all costs. Instead of curbing human rights abuses, the Party’s way of evaluating officials exacerbated the issue.

Now, however, there are signs of change. While the idea of “social harmony” as a way of evaluating local officials doesn’t sound particularly new, when combined with other changes it is potentially significant. In late November, the Chinese government abolished the practice of ranking local governments based on the number of petitioners. In addition, the deputy chief of the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, which handled government petitions, was removed from his post as part of a wider corruption investigation into the system.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the problem of local governments punishing petitioners will go away entirely. As Li Gao, a deputy bureau chief of the Bureau for Letters and Calls, said in a news conference announcing the change, “Now we only talk to local bureaus when the local petitioners frequently petition in Beijing in an abnormal way, in order to solve the problem.” This still gives the impression that local governments will be under pressure to ensure their petitioners aren’t “frequent” or “abnormal,”, two terms that any open to interpretation. Still, the change is an encouraging sign that the central government has recognized and is moving to address a long-standing human rights issue.

As the saying goes in China, “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away” (山高皇帝远) — meaning central government edicts, from the time of China’s emperors through today, are tough to enforce at the local level. The Party knows that it evaluation system is one of the most significant tools it has to leverage the behavior of local officials. Local officials who want be promoted (or just to keep their current jobs) will have to impress the central authorities on these evaluations. By highlighting new areas for evaluation, the Party is attempting to make sure its reforms extend to the local level as well. That looks to be good news for China’s environmentalists, and possibly for human rights advocates as well.

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