Number One On Lanzhou Television

The following is the translation of an article in The Journalist (Issue 999, April 27, 2006, page 70).  This is an interesting situation in which the Kansu provincial propaganda department director was appointed to be the party secretary of Lanzhou city, which had been rocked by a corruption scandal.  In order to clean up the image of the city, he chose to do it with a television show.

[in translation]

"It is not acceptable to squat on the toilet space but refuse to defecate!"  At the end of March, Lanzhou city party secretary Chen Baosheng declared openly on CCTV that he intends to go after mediocre official acts.  Such a powerful declaration of an open criticism of the culture of mediocrity that has troubled Chinese government organizations is truly rarely ever heard.

Lanzhou is the capital of Kansu province.  It is located in northwestern China.  No matter from the viewpoint of region or economics, this city is located in the marginal fringe of China.  But Lanzhou enjoys a special position in Chinese politics.  The current Chinese Communist Party chairman Hu Jintao and the State Council Premier Wen Jiabao both started their careers here.  Therefore, the Lanzhou officials had a reputation for being 'clean.'

In 2004, Lanzhou suffered a tremendous blow to that reputation.  The former Lanzhou city mayor Zhang Yushun made a secret denunciation against then city party secretary Wang Jun for accepting bribes.  The latter was eventually dismissed.  But more astonishing was that Zhang Yushun was later involved as well and subjected to the "double discipline" (that is, explaining the details of his case at a certain time at a certain place).  So a strange farce of "Mayor denouncing City Party Secretary" took place.  Finally, a large group of officials including deputy mayor Yang Chengqi, Lanzhou city party committee secretary Yan Jiping, Lanzhou city Anning district party secretary Zhang Qiang and Zhang Yushun's predecessor mayor Zhu Zuoyong were also punished.

Who will clean up the mess?  That became a matter of attention at the time.  Finally, then Kansu province propaganda department director Chen Baosheng 'parachuted' into Lanzhou and assumed the position of party secretary on November 29, 2004.

After the shock of the huge bribery scandal, the atmosphere in Lanzhou was unusual.  "Everybody felt despondent; the investors were ready to withdraw their capital."  "When I assumed the post, the biggest problem was how to restore morale.  Finally, after studying the situation, I decided to take aim at curing mediocrity."  On December 10, 2004, Chen Baosheng brought up his plan for curing mediocrity at the city-wide human resources working meeting for the first time.  This was ten days after he took charge.

This was obviously the first salvo from the new city party secretary.  But Chen Baosheng has a longstanding hatred for mediocre officials.  "Within our organizations, if a worker wants to be mediocre, I can say for certain that nobody or very few people will stop you.  You can be as mediocre as you like.  But if you want to do better, then I am sorry to say that many people will try to stop you."  During the interview, Chen Baosheng said frankly that under the new circumstances, China needs to "re-make the organizational culture."

Although the proposal was made to cure mediocrity among officials and this was supported by the people, there were many who felt that this might be a case of 'loud thunders but small raindrops.'  The problem was that it is hard to classify a "mediocre official."  This problem also bothered Chen Baosheng.  "I was cursing myself for creating a difficult problem for myself."

At first, Lanzhou defined four types of "mediocre behaviors":

were retained.  "Don't do anything -- he has the ability but he doesn't do anything.  Do things chaotically -- if you give him money; he'll do things; if you don't give him money, he won't do anything; if you give him money, he'll do things without regard to order; if you don't give him money, he won't do anything.  Don't know how to do anything -- he does not have the ability and therefore he can't do anything."

On May 8, 2005, an important ("red-headlined") document titled "The plan by the Chinese Communist Party Lanzhou City Party Committee to clean up mediocre behaviors" was published for the public.  Within this document, the above three types of activities were classified into 18 more detailed situations with appropriate manifest behavioral criteria and the appropriate handling measures.  For example, amongst the "Don't do anything" regulations: "When national laws, regulations, rules or policy orders issued by superiors are not carried out," "the unit leader and other related personnel will be criticized in writing and/or transferred/demoted from their current positions."

Concerning what Lanzhou was doing, some experts pointed out this was flawed.  There are already many national laws and regulations concerning the behavior of public servants.  Using a "red-headlined" document is redundant.  With respect to this criticism, Chen Baosheng said that the Lanzhou plan against official mediocrity is in accordance with the law.  "These experts know who ought to be done, but they do not know what the reality is in any specific place in China."

At the same time that the campaign against mediocrity was initiated, Chen Baosheng came up with the idea of starting a television program.  Quickly, the Chinese Communist Lanzhou City Party Committee office and the Lanzhou City Government office jointly issued another "red-headlined" document to the various departments to work with Lanzhou Television to start a "Number One on Television" program.

"Number One (一把手)" is a colloquial term in China which refers to the persons in charge at various departments.  From the title, it can be seen that this program asks the persons in charge of the various departments to face the public on television.  This move is something new in China.

"If the number ones in the various organizations do not take responsibility, then they won't be in the front line battle against mediocrity.  If they want to fool me or the city party committee, it would be very easy."  So Chen Baosheng treated the creation of this program as an important component in the plan to cure mediocrity.  "How do I make the Number Ones assume the heavy duty of curing mediocrity?  I put them on the front line."  The pressure from above and the monitoring by the people from below will work hand in hand.

Apart from that, the creation of "Number One on Television" has two more purposes.  "To train the cadres.  Usually our cadres are lacking in many qualities in terms of their overall ability under a democratic political system."  Chen Baosheng gave some examples: "They don't know how to express themselves, they employ officialese, they offer polite talk and they talk too much."  "When speaking, I first consider whether this is safe or not.  If I say this, who will I offend?"  "Everything said is totally correct and also totally useless."

"The third issue to solve some actual problems.  You cannot let the grievances grow.  How can we let the grievances accumulate?  The needs of the masses will not be addressed."

On June 17, 2005, Chen Baosheng became the first person to enter the broadcast studio and the program began officially.  As of now, about two hundred episodes have been broadcast.

There were several types of doubts about this program.  The first question is whether it can be continued over the long run.  Chen Baosheng said that as long as he is in his post, the program will continue.

Next, some people believed that the program has a compulsory nature and has a strong flavor of rulership by everybody.  Chen Baosheng's response was: "What is this thing about rulership by everybody?  We never thought about this.  This is about solving problems.  If something can solve problems, then it is a good thing.  If something cannot solve problems, then it is useless no matter how well-thought out that you say it is."

As for the concern whether this program will become a political show theater, Chen Baosheng's response surprised everybody: "I am not opposed to our cadres putting on a show.  If he can put on an act, then this is one of his talents, just as long as he does not misuse it."  Yet, whether something is a show or not would not be based upon what the cadre says.  "It only counts when the people of Lanzhou say so.  If they think that this program is good, then that is enough."

Prior to becoming the Lanzhou city party secretary, Chen Baosheng was the Kansu province propaganda department director and therefore he knows about the functions of media.  He has said publicly that the modern government must learned "to make use" of the media.  At Lanzhou Television, there is a program known as "Lanzhou Zero Distance."  The program reports on various "negative reports" and has a tremendous following in the civil sector.  According to informed sources, this program would have been taken off the air a long time ago already without Chen Baosheng's support.

"125 persons, including four at divisional director level and seventeen at the divisional deputy director level."  The Lanzhou City Committee organizational department director Liu Weimin said that was the number of persons who were treated as "mediocre officials" between May last year and February this year.

Although the number is astonished, the ranks of the officials were obviously not very high.  Chen Baosheng explains this by saying that there have been no county-level or higher officials uncovered so far.  But if one is found, "there will be no mercy."

Among the 125 who were dealt with, Chen Baosheng "personally" handled one case.  From among the opinion reports sent to him through the media, there was a report from someone who went to a department on business, but the worker was playing fun and games and had a bad attitude.  So Chen Baosheng wrote a personal note to dismiss this person.  "There were four others involved, for a total of five persons.  His superior leader was involved too."  "Actually, this was indirect," Chen Baosheng emphasized that according to the regulations, administration is done by levels and "it was not up to me" to handle those cadres under the divisional level.

Undoubtedly, the "campaign against mediocre officials" in Lanzhou carries a strong individualistic flavor.  Chen Baosheng does not deny that.  "If I hadn't come to work in Lanzhou city, I would not have proposed the plan to cure mediocrity.  That is for certain."  "The plan to cure mediocrity and 'Number One on television' are projects for democratic politics that were made under the unique circumstances in Lanzhou.  They were procedures to make political affairs more open and transparent.  Perhaps there will be a more systematic procedure to replace them in the future.  But under these special circumstances, these two measures have their special uses."