By David Bandurski — It’s been more than two weeks since Shanxi Daily, the official party mouthpiece of top leaders in the northern province, reported that the mayor of one of its largest cities had given out 960,000 personal namecards in an effort to address work safety issues. But the reports and editorials continue to fly in what has become yet another opportunity to discuss how China’s leaders can and should be responsive to the needs and views of the people.

The story began with a news report printed on the front page of Shanxi Daily on October 4, not on October 5 as the official Xinhua News Agency suggested yesterday.

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[ABOVE: Front page of the October 4, 2008, edition of Shanxi Daily, story about Changzhi’s mayor circled at bottom.]

The Shanxi Daily story, which ran at many of China’s top news portals, reported that leaders in the city of Changzhi had “printed and distributed” 960,000 “special” namecards bearing the phone numbers of the mayor and party secretary.

The article quoted one astonished city resident as exclaiming: “Never did it occur to me that now we would be able to call the party secretary and the mayor directly to let them know what’s going on.”

The news met with varied responses from internet users, ranging from the skeptical . . .

“Oh, this is all just about face!”

“I’m not so sure. This needs to be verified.”

. . . to the abrasively curious . . .

“How much did the cards cost, and who’s paying for them?”

. . . to the downright nasty . . .

“Who will answer the phone? His cute little secretary, or his mistress?”

But some actually saw the move as more than an empty gesture, saying the city’s leaders were being open and proactive in the face of urgent work safety problems that have plagued the province. A number of public administration scholars in Beijing reportedly dubbed the action “Changzhi’s New Deal” (长治新政).

Xinhua reported that by October 21, Google searches of the phrase “Changzhi/960,000 namecards” (长治96万张名片) turned up more than 126,000 results. That search comes back with about 130,000 results today, whatever that signifies.

Suffice to say, the Changzhi namecard story has been the focus of some interesting discussion about how leaders can be more responsive to the public in resolving various social and political issues — and how the people should participate, not forgetting Hu Jintao’s words to the 17th National Congress about “protecting the people’s right to know, participate, express and supervise” (保障人民的知情权、参与权、表达权、监督权).

It is also worth nothing that internet users have been circulating a purported “notice” from party leaders in Changzhi saying the 960,000 figure reported by Shanxi Daily was incorrect, and that only 96 namecards were distributed. Xinhua claims to have debunked this story. They report confirming with someone at the party’s office in Changzhi that they had indeed distributed 960,000 cards, “10,000 to officers of the Public Security Bureau, 50,000 to coal miners, 100,000 to city residents and their families, and 800,000 to families in the countryside.”

According to Xinhua’s calculation, that means there is now one official namecard for every 3.4 people in the city.

But is this really a “New Deal” for the people of Changzhi?

In today’s Southern Metropolis Daily, blogger and columnist Wu Yue San Ren (五岳散人) offers his own perspective on the namecard story.

If the mayor morphs into an octopus he’ll still be swamped

The mayor of Shanxi’s Changzhi City (长治市) publicized his own telephone number, and says he printed 960,000 copies of his personal namecard to distribute to city residents, so that they can inform him of hidden production safety issues. As soon as word got out, this became a red-hot focus in the news. Many praised the action for placing the focus on the popular voice, and some went so far as to call it “Changzhi’s New Deal” (长治新政). But there are many reasons for taking issue with his actions, and my reasons are very simple: even if leaders morph into octopi they cannot possibly answer every phone call, so this gesture is worthless.

Here’s what I’m thinking. A place as big as Changzhi is most certainly going to see countless problems, and even if you went through the days without eating or sleeping you couldn’t possibly answer all of those calls. So in the end this phone number is entirely for show. You think, perhaps, that the mayor is manning the phones? Even if he grew eight hands he couldn’t answer them all. And if he has a secretary answering calls on his behalf, how is this any different from listening to the daily reports that reach his desk? These are all materials that have gone through a vetting process. The mayor . . . cannot by such means ensure his city is well-governed. He must be a good city manager, and his responsibility is to delegate specific tasks to others, not to go himself and sweep the streets clean.

As an outsider, of course, I can’t simply dismiss this as an act of image building (形象工程), nor can I say the gesture is entirely without meaning. It’s just that to call this some kind of “New Deal” is just too unrealistic. All of these “opinion boxes” and “mayor’s hotlines”, and these “mayor’s mailboxes” we’ve made such a fuss about on the Web — what is it they are missing? If changing fixed opinion boxes and fixed telephone lines into mobile numbers is a “New Deal,” then just look at how simple it is to turn over a new leaf politically.

This so-called “New Deal” in fact exposes two old problems. The first is that no matter what the problem, it has to be voiced at the very top before anything can be done to resolve it or give it attention. We live in a place where what the leader says, goes — in the language of political studies, all decisions must in the end come from the very highest levels. Meanwhile, everyone else in various government departments sends up mixed messages or completely muzzles matters in order to lessen the risk of political decision-making. There are many matters that stand no chance of resolution unless they happen to make it into the hands of those who head up the government. This means that weak leadership and daily negligence continue unabated. And the method of resolution that comes to us now is this “New Deal” that has never ever been new. The new deal is not new, and problems go on as ever . . .

So I won’t dismiss this as a mere act of image building or a “political show” (政治秀), but I’m inclined to think it’s an empty gesture . . . To simply dismiss this as a “political show” or to simply praise it as a “New Deal” is to overlook the most critical point — that when the fundamentals go unchanged, even actions with the best of intentions amount to the mere addressing of symptoms in lieu of a cure.

This whole affair is proof once again of the basic soundness of this principle. All of this publicizing of phone numbers, whether its at the provincial level or the city level, or even phone numbers higher up the ladder, this is about this or that politician doing his little bit to the extent that he can. But as to the results of these efforts, they are dissipated again and again in the fruitless efforts and skepticism of ordinary people . . .

[Posted by David Bandurski, October 23, 2008, 3:41pm]