Sunday, 21 January 2018

A Mayoral Change in Nanjing

One day you’re a vice-governor of Jiangsu province, based in Nanjing. The following day, you’re suddenly officially named the mayor of Nanjing.

That’s what happened to Lan Shaomin [蓝绍敏] who, in an unexpected announcement here on Friday, was named to replace Nanjing mayor Miao Ruilin [缪瑞林].

It’s a puzzling piece of news.

First, there’s the timing of the announcement.

According to official reports, Miao’s request to resign from his position as mayor was accepted [接受缪瑞林同志辞去] on the very eve of the city’s “Two Meetings” [两会]—the annual conclave of representatives which help chart the city’s course for the coming year.

Maybe. But this is a meaningful gathering, especially this year as it’s being held in the wake of the 19th Party Congress. For the mayor of Nanjing to step away just before this major event gets underway smacks of something nefarious as well as abrupt, especially as Miao was out in public a little over a week prior to this news.

There’s also the way in which Miao departed and Lan took over.[1]

Usually an official steps aside; a successor is named, shown shaking hands with his predecessor; and political life is presented as returning to normal. In this case, however, there was no official handover, just the announcement. Moreover, no reason was given for the change; these days there often is.

It may be that Miao is in poor health—although even in that event, there can be some sort of public mention.

And all of this is baffling for another reason.

Miao did an excellent job in a difficult situation when he became Nanjing’s acting mayor in December of 2013, succeeding the fabulously corrupt and greatly despised Ji Jianye [季建] when the latter was ousted for graft.[2] Miao was popular among many local officials and the public here knew him as someone who was a vast improvement over his predecessor. One would have thought that if Miao were leaving his position as mayor, it would be because he was being promoted.

And maybe that’s what will end up happening.

Still, whether Miao stepped down or was pushed down is an important question, beyond Nanjing.

If the former, we’ll likely here more of him in the months ahead. Miao seemed a striver, and perhaps he still is.

But if Miao has been cast into political purgatory, it might be because Beijing wasn’t happy with what some saw as a dearth of support for Xi and his program. Nanjing hasn’t been exactly gushy in its references to the resolutions reached there in October, and surely that’s been noticed by Beijing.

Or Miao may have fallen victim to what is looking like a re-energized anticorruption campaign here in Nanjing. Maybe he’s being held responsible—or just being held.

Miao’s resignation is either a spot of local news, or a harbinger of something larger in the province and perhaps beyond. Perhaps his successor will share the answers—once he gets settled into his new job.

[1] Miao had been a vice-governor of Jiangsu before he became mayor in Nanjing himself, so there’s some procedural precedent in Lan coming from the same post to take over.
[2] The various charges of corruption leveled against Ji were well-documented, and entirely unsurprising to local residents and officials here. For another view, there’s this take.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Spring Festival Is Real, But What About The Tickets?

Train tickets for Spring Festival this year went on sale nationwide on Wednesday. Many tickets to and from Nanjing sold out in just a few moments, some in even less time.

The good news is that the Nanjing Railway Police Department [南京铁路公安] have plenty of train tickets—nearly 3,000 by their estimate.

The bad news?  They’re counterfeit.

The afternoon before Spring Festival tickets became available for purchase, Nanjing officers raided a 6-person hair salon in Changzhou [常州], Jiangsu province. They seized tickets, a computer and a printer, and arrested a man by the name of Zhu [], the 33 year-old owner of the barbershop.

Police said that Zhu had advertised his ticket services on Taobao [淘宝], China’s online commerce site, and promised that as long as an ID card number [身份证号码] was provided, train tickets could be customized according to the travel plans of buyers, and delivered to the doorway by express delivery. That’s almost identical to the arrangements Nanjing Railway Police saw when they raided a similar operation in Anhui province a week earlier.

Police said the value of the fake tickets seized at Zhu’s shop was upwards of 4.4 million RMB. According to the officers, Zhu’s wife never suspected that her husband was clever [聪明] enough to have graduated “from being the owner of a hair salon to a fake ticket manufacturer [从理发店老板变成了假票制造商].”

Zhu got nailed by “Operation Falcon” [猎鹰打票贩], a nationwide effort to crackdown on the illegal traffic in train tickets. Interestingly enough, Nanjing Railway Police don’t normally engage in that sort of swooping down on suspects: They usually cast themselves as the friendly officers at the local stations here, simply lending a helping hand or locating lost luggage. But this is good work, and they deserve great praise for their efforts. 

At the same time, people and police officers alike have to be wondering: When raids are netting a single person, a computer and a printer—and thousands of tickets---who else is out there, hiding behind a website and a local storefront, tapping away at a keyboard and bashing away at social trust?

Spring Festival is still a few weeks away. No one need celebrate too early.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

A Reminder Of The Real Struggles To Come

Here’s news that’s really news, but perhaps won’t be treated as such by some.

On January 16, major Communist Party media outlets ran a front-page story that referred to an all-day meeting in which Standing Committee members listed to reports by various Party and government bodies.[1] Xi also gave a speech—described as “an important speech” [重要讲话], but that’s to be expected, because what Xi says is crucial.

In some ways, the story is standard stuff.

For nearly the past half decade, this has been the political season here in China when the work reports of higher-echelon institutions are issued internally within the Party and government apparatus to review various accomplishments and shortcomings. A good deal of the material distributed seeks applause; some of it is self-critical and looks for suggestions and directions. These reports are informational, in that they convey what the Chinese leadership is thinking about and aiming to do—what matters to central-level officials.[2] The precise parameters of policy-making won’t be clear for a while, and it will take weeks for these findings to be disseminated; they’ll remain for outsiders largely opaque at best.

But because the language of China’s politics is always carefully constructed, even the general statements made at major meetings like this one are revealing.

For example, there’s this formulation of Party aims:

First of all, persist in the Party's leadership, focus on centralizing and unifying the leadership of the Party Central Committee. The whole Party needs to firmly secure political awareness, comprehension of the overall situation, maintain and sustain a core consciousness, and safeguard the central authority and centralized leadership of the Party Central Committee as the highest political principle and see this fundamental political rule carried out. [坚持党的领导首先是坚持党中央集中统一领导。全党要牢固树立政治意识、大局意识、核心意识、看齐意识,把维护党中央权威和集中统一领导作为最高政治原则和根本政治规矩来执行]

This is largely political boilerplate—important in one sense because of its continuity and consistency.

But when Xi and his like-minded comrades[3] use terms such as “persist”, “focus”, “firmly secure”, “maintain and sustain”, and “safeguard”, they are referring to jobs not yet done, goals that are still unmet.

That's a problem.

Here's another.

The standard narrative about Xi Jinping is that, politically speaking, he is all set and secure and supreme. But if Xi has so much power and authority, why does the institution he chairs release statements that largely resemble those written by his predecessors? Given that Xi’s agenda is so different, shouldn’t Xi have been able to alter the phrasing in ways that wouldn’t reiterate what his predecessors had put forth?

Those might seem difficult questions to answer, but they’re not really.

The narrative about Xi being more powerful than anyone since Mao is nonsense.

That’s in large part because this isn’t the China of the past century, but the present one. The problems are different; leaders have learned some lessons and forgotten others; and the society is both more alert and far more diverse.

Xi and his allies have major challenges. They want to centralize policy-making; bring back and reinsert ideology in a major way; and exert authority over the economy while connecting to the society. And, judging from the focus of the meeting, they’re having difficulty keeping everyone on the same page.

They understand that there’s resistance beyond Beijing. Many local officials support Xi’s overall vision of change, but there are signs of discomfort among some. They want to decentralize authority; view ideology as a diversion from daily tasks; and wish for innovation and entrepreneurship to win out over Beijing’s emphasis on state-owned enterprises. Some may not be well pleased (though others appear firmly in Xi's camp*).

Xi and his comrades rightly see getting command and control over policy-making as crucial—or as their communiqué puts it, “situations have all sides, the center is the important thing.” [事在四方,要在中央][4]

So far, the center is holding, dominated by Xi and his fellow hardliners, many of them quite brilliant. But that they seem to feel the need to remind others of their aims means they aren’t dominating everything yet.

[1] The National People's Congress, the State Council, the Party’s Political Consultative Committee, the People's Supreme Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate, and the Secretariat of the Central Committee. [听取全国人大常委会、国务院、全国政协、最高人民法院、最高人民检察院党组工作汇报 听取中央书记处工作报告] In short, all the heavy hitters.

[2] As opposed to the many and sundry analysts who want to tell Beijing what it should be focusing on, and therefore must be aiming to do. An example of such misplaced projection over the past few years is how China must be engaged in deep financial reform that would emulate other nations because that’s what those observers believe Beijing needs.

[3] “Like-minded” on many issues, but by no means all. Xi didn’t select these people; the Central Committee did. Xi is a hardline conservative aiming to reform the Party through rectification and centralization. That doesn’t mean everyone is in lockstep with him or those views.  

[4] The quote used in the statement is drawn from Han Feizi. A fuller—and probably more revealing--version appears in a translation of Han’s writings by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 2003) on page 35: “Government reaches to the four quarters, but its source is in the center. The sage holds to the source and the four quarters come to serve him. In emptiness he awaits them, and they spontaneously do what is needed.” 

Monday, 15 January 2018

In Nanjing, Will The Usual Strategy To Fight Corruption Be Sufficient?

Four officials in Nanjing were arrested here this past weekend on corruption charges, specifically suspicion of bribery [犯有受贿罪] and “committing crimes while on duty” [职务犯罪].[1]

While it’s an interesting group of suspects, the news also points to the differences between how Beijing is tackling corruption and what Nanjing is doing about graft.

But first, here’s the lineup of the accused.

There’s Jiang Genlin [蒋根林], the former director of the Trade Union Management Committee in Nanjing’s Jiangning Economic and Technological Development Zone [江宁经济技术开发区].

The former deputy curator of the Nanjing Museum, Hua Guorong [华国荣] is also in custody for abusing authority [滥用职权罪]. He had been a high-profile administrator in the museum’s recent expansion but his impressive resume has suddenly gone missing from their website.

Also detained is Gao Changfu [高长福] suspected of corruption and bribery while working as Party Secretary in charge of Nanjing Biomedical Valley Development Park [南京生物医药谷]. At least one can still find his political climb online and a news item from 2016. But he’s likely not to be so available to the local media, at least for a while.

The final member of this local Gang of Four is Tong Jun [童俊], the former chief of the Finance Department of the Jiangning branch of Nanjing’s Bureau of Land and Resources Bureau. Tong isn’t the first person connected with property allocation decisions here to be pulled in for clever questioning about how certain developers received rights to land that was supposed to be publicly auctioned. It’s unlikely he’ll be the last.

A former trade union director, a museum administrator, a local party secretary, and a finance department chief--that’s a diverse collection of the purportedly corrupt. Were they all linked in some scheme? Or are each the masterminds behind separate efforts to defraud?

And if they’re guilty as charged, how could they not know that they’d get caught?

Because it wasn’t as if they weren’t warned: They were.

In fact, while Nanjing party media have been reluctant to rebroadcast at high-volume everything that the 19th Party Congress decreed, officials here know that they have a corruption problem and Nanjing authorities have recently warned cadres and bureaucrats of even greater supervision in 2018.

But, depending on whether one is speaking of Beijing or Nanjing, there are different strategies in place to fight corruption.

In Beijing, President Xi Jinping has, to quote central party organs, “come out swinging again” [再出重拳] against graft. There’s a renewed focus on the use of public funds for personal consumption, and in recent months, that’s “snuck into the underground and tried to assume invisible forms” [潜入地下的隐形变异] . Because officials are getting better at hiding corruption, an even more ruthless campaign must commence—at least according to Xi and his comardes in Beijing.

But Nanjing is seeking to wage its war differently.

Typical cases of corruption in Nanjing have in the past year mostly involved food safety, remuneration for migrant workers, environmental pollution, and illegal mining—not the large-scale, high-profile problems with “tigers” that plague China’s upper echelons. Officials tend not to take bribes to get rich; they get paid to look the other way when local laws and regulations are being violated. Corruption here tends to be limited in scale, contained and somewhat constrained.

That’s because, at least according to authorities, Nanjing has local advantages. As one account put it, “Nanjing’s red and traditional culture, as well as its humanities and historical resources, tell a story of honesty and goodness, and provide the foundation for party members to remain true to the government.” These psychological obstacles provide limits to large-scale corruption, they claim. There’s greed, but it doesn’t get out of hand.[2]

Plus, officials here claim, there’s a strong system of petitions and letters of complaint that encourage residents to report official malfeasance. Despite Nanjing's size (8 million or so citizens), everyone seems to know someone in the government and that means nothing stays very quiet very long.

And yet there’s still graft in Nanjing—bribes being taken and some people using official positions to solicit them. The Party apparatus admits that, and these stories wouldn't be coming out if everyone was clean.

Something clearly went wrong, though what Comrades Jiang, Gao, Hua and Tong were precisely up to hasn’t been made clear. According to news reports of their arrests, “the cases are in the process of further investigation [上述案件正在进一步侦查中].”

Like a number of matters.

Maybe Nanjing is right to aim at containing corruption, instead of aspiring to kill it off and claim a victory that would be fleeting at best. But look for Beijing to wonder whether that strategy is something worth investigating.

[1] The latter is an increasingly common indictment when highly-placed persons have used their position to indulge in graft of some sort, the parameters of which are still being sorted out.

[2] Some developers and officials insist privately that bribery is just the added cost of doing business in Nanjing. Others insist that was before Xi; that it's a different environment here these days.