High-ranking officials learn to face the music

Updated: 2007-03-15 21:52

BEIJING -- When Wu Yi, China's only female vice premier in the cabinet, joined lawmakers from Zhejiang Province in a panel discussion on March 7, they didn't prepare for an apology from the "iron lady", who successfully steered China's negotiations into the World Trade Organization.

"People are dissatisfied, and I feel guilty for that. I should apologize to you," said silver-haired Wu for failing to check soaring medical expenses, pledging to the lawmakers that the government will make utmost efforts to tackle existing problems.

She was followed by Education Minister Zhou Ji, who apologized for his ministry's insufficient work to provide equal education in the country on March 9 during an interview with Xinhuanet.com on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature.

The two were joined by Zhou Shengxian, head of the State Environment Protection Administration (SEPA).

While addressing a panel discussion, Zhou bowed to lawmakers from Shanxi Province and confessed that the country's failure to achieve the goals of reducing energy consumption and major pollutants discharge last year was a result of weak supervision and insufficient investment by his administration.

"These gestures from the high-ranking officials showed that the government has fully recognized the inadequate work with a down-to- earth manner, other than always focusing on achievements," said Liu Dongrong, a deputy to the NPC.

In the current transitional period, the government has been confronted with unprecedented challenges including inadequate health care, worsening pollution and widening social inequality, which can barely be solved by merely emphasizing GDP growth, said Liu, a professor from central Hunan Province.

"If the government failed to do a good job, government officials must apologize or give explanations, simply because it is their responsibility," said Li Lu'er, an NPC deputy from Zhejiang Province.

"There is no perfect government that never makes mistakes," said Prof. Ren Jianming with the School of Government Research at Qinghua University. "The criteria of a reliable government lies in its attitude when facing up mistakes."

Indeed, aside from apologies, the government is trying to provide practical solutions.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged that the government will meet the energy saving and pollution control targets between 2006 and 2010 despite last year's setback, saying "the targets can't be revised and we must work resolutely to reach them."

Wu Yi promised that the government will tighten the supervision over small workshops, food stores, stalls and eateries, where food poisoning accidents are most likely to happen. The government will also tighten the monitoring of the food and drug businesses in the production and distribution fields, Wu said.

As for the educational sectors, Zhou Ji vowed to complete nine- year compulsory education in China's western regions by the end of the year while Zhou Shengxian pledged to launch another three regional environment watchdogs in Chengdu, Xi'an and Shenyang in 2007 aside from the two in Guangzhou and Shanghai to ensure local governments abide by environment protection laws and regulations.

These solutions are also response to the increasing supervision from lawmakers and public opinions, which urged government officials to timely address the social problems, said Prof. Ren Jianming.

As China's top legislature, the annual full session of the NPC with around 3,000 deputies across China mainly reviews what government has done in the past year and map out the blueprint for next year.

"It (the NPC) is actually the annual open assessment from the public on the government work," said Prof. Liu Dongrong.

With increasing government transparency and a maturing official accountability system, Chinese officials are facing rising pressure from public opinions, which requires them to shoulder the responsibility once they fail to do what they are suppose to.

The latest high-profile case occurred in February 2005 when Liu Guoqiang, vice governor of northeastern Liaoning Province, was suspended from his post after a local coal mine explosion killed 214 people. In 2003, China dismissed a naval commander after a deadly submarine accident and sacked the country's health minister and the Beijing mayor for covering up the SARS crisis.

"But under a perfect accountability system, officials can not just make apologies or wait to be fired after failing to fulfill their duty. They should always put people first in their work," said Ren Jianming, adding that the premier task of a civil servant is to serve the people, not to take the advantage of them.

To remind officials of their duty, President Hu Jintao urged civil servants at all levels to have a sense of serving the people, a sense of frugality and a sense of crisis during a panel discussion with lawmakers from Chongqing during the parliament session.

Also, Premier Wen Jiabao said in the government work report delivered to nearly 3,000 lawmakers last Monday that the buildup of an efficient and clean government that better serves the people will top the cabinet's agenda this year.

"Making apology is just a beginning, and the action after that is more crucial, which needs joint efforts of civil servants at all levels," said Ren Jianming, adding that the central government has already set an example for local governments.

"Once the promise is made, government officials have no leeway. They must honor their words," said Zhang Liansheng, an NPC deputy from southeastern Fujian Province.

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