China Power

China’s Tone Deaf Officials

A number of gaffes in recent years highlight how out of touch local Chinese Communist Party officials are.

China’s annual session of the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference will both be held in March. But, as is usual, there will be general meetings held in various Chinese provinces before more than 2,000 officials gather in Beijing.

This past year, though, there has been a series of notable “gaffes” by lawmakers that will hang like a cloud over the gathered officials.
One of the most notorious of these was a recent incident in Guangdong Province, where one Communist Party official proposed building a huge “Goddess of Harmony” on an island located at the western end of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge. The official who proposed building the statue thought that it was a good opportunity to construct a special “cultural monument,” in keeping with the Chinese government’s goal of promoting cultural development.

The public, though, was less convinced an expensive statue was the best way to bring harmony to China, and the plan was met with a mixture of disbelief and derision. (The fact that the person proposing the mega project was a developer didn’t help his credibility).
Such a scheme would struggle to get off the ground at the best of times, but with so much public concern over development issues like land acquisitions and social housing, there’s no way a project like this is going to get off the ground. This is especially so given the public’s mistrust of officials over issues including toxic food, medical care and long queues for parents just wanting to enroll their kids in kindergarten.
But the Guangdong official’s failure to make a public stand on all these issues in favor of proposing a grand harmony project underscores another reality – that officials chosen by China’s rulers, rather than the people, are just a little out of touch.
In another straneg case a couple of years back, an official suggested that simplified Chinese characters should be abolished in favor of traditional Chinese characters sometime in the next decade. His reasoning was that as Taiwan uses the traditional characters, using the same characters would be a good way of helping reunification (the proposal was rejected).
In another example of political tone deafness, an official suggested that one way of making it easier to streamline the civil service would be to create other institutions to accept former civil servants. This illogical suggestion prompted much mirth.
Foreigners looking at some of these proposals might very well be asking themselves how these officials ever became lawmakers in the first place. Clearly there is a dearth of quality candidates representing the needs of the people.
So what should be done? If the government is interested in improving the quality of lawmakers, then conducting open elections is surely the way forward. Letting the public have more of a say at a local level would at least encourage officials to be responsive to the needs of the people. Coupled with this, the government should encourage more members of the general public to run for office, rather than relying on out of touch officials.
Of course there are many reasons why the government resists such ideas, but if it wants to have any hope of better communicating with the public, it should perhaps reconsider.