The latest scandal over suspected corruption or favoritism in official government appointments in China erupted earlier this week surrounding 29-year-old Yan Ning (闫宁), who is deputy Party secretary of Hebei’s Guantao County (馆陶县) and expected to formally become its Party chief later this year. According to media reports, Yan’s promotion would make him the youngest county Party chief in history.
But as the Southern Metropolis Daily points out in its lead editorial today, the issue here isn’t so much about age or qualifications as it is about more open government affairs. When Chinese media followed up on the Yan Ning story they were told by government employees that “the chief’s resume is a secret, and it’s not convenient to reveal it to the outside.”
The claim that an official’s work experience is a matter of state secrecy has naturally infuriated many Chinese — and the Guantao government now finds itself at the center of a national scandal, the heart of which is the question, much in the spotlight of late, of open government information and the public’s right to know.
The government of Guantao County (馆陶县) finally released Yan Ning’s resume late yesterday, and it is being widely shared on social media in China today. According to the released information on Yan, he became a village Party leader at the age of just 18.
[ABOVE: The official government website of Hebei’s Guantao County now shows a photo and brief resume of Yan Ning, the soon-to-be county Party chief whose resume was recently called “secret.”]
The following is our translation of today’s editorial in the Southern Metropolis Daily.
“County Chief’s Resume Kept Secret: Of What Value is Popular Opinion?“
September 22, 2011
A meeting of Party cadres was held recently in Hebei’s Guantao County (馆陶县), and 29-year-old Yan Ning (闫宁) took up his posts as Guantao’s deputy Party secretary and acting county chief. Assuming all goes smoothly, Yan Ning will without a doubt get to drop this qualifier “acting” at the next session of the county people’s congress, becoming the county chief in earnest. When that happens Yan Ning will swipe the historical record books clean. This young man born on November 22, 1981, will stand beside Zhou Senfeng (周森锋), who at the [tender] age of 29 became the chief of a county-level city, Hebei’s Yicheng (宜城), and he will take his place as “the youngest county chief in history.”
If it weren’t for this newsy detail [about Yan Ning], it’s more than likely that the name Zhou Senfeng would have rapidly faded in the public eye. . . [T]he former riddle of this youth’s rapid advancement, along with the so-called “umbrella-gate” (打伞门), “cigarette-gate” (香烟门) and “thesis-gate” (论文门) — [cases involving officials caught in compromising positions] — all drew attention from the media, but those involved and government organs did their best to withhold everything, and public concerns, which had no proper course, could only build up behind the flood gates. Looking back at things now, the attempts to keep things under wraps were a success, because as Lu Xun once said, “the forgotten savior” will ultimately return and those moments that seemed so hard to endure will yield to times of ease [NOTE: This is a tough passage, but essentially means that people get past a given incident or scandal, move on, and things return to a state of blissful ignorance.]
Like the earlier case of Zhou Senfeng, Yan Ning’s life experience and his rapid advancement have invited all sorts of thoughts and speculations. News reports says that before the 29-year-old Yan Ning was slated for Guantao’s county chief position, he worked in Yongnian County (永年县) of the [prefectural-level[ city of Handan (邯郸市) for more than five years. For the first three years, this young person won four separate advancements, moving up the ladder faster than is customary. Faced with [public] questions and suppositions, the authorities have perhaps been even more resolute in withholding [information]. In the previous case, one had only to open up the “leadership window” section of the official website of the Guantao county government to view personal information about the deputy county chiefs, including photographs, work experience and a list of responsibilities. But ever since Yan Ning came to work at Guantao, one can only view [on the official website] information about leaders at the standing deputy chief (常务副县长) level or lower. More recently, the “leadership window” section of the site cannot be opened. Media that have gone to the scene to report this story have been given a red light. And now, we have it from government employees in the county that “the chief’s resume is a secret, and it’s not convenient to reveal it to the outside.”
When the resume of a county Party chief became a secret all sorts of whisperings are apt to spread around like wildfire. According to information shared by one web user, Yan Ning’s father previously served as general secretary of the government office in the county, and as [Party] chief of the [local] electrical supply bureau. [The web user said that] there are two department-level officials (厅级) and three county-level officials in Yan’s family. Quite the opposite of what we generally see in such cases, where relevant [government] departments step out to counter the rumors, this time relevant departments in Handan city haven’t issued even the most basic response. One can’t help but be bewildered by this. Is it that they just don’t realize that this will only intensify questions and speculation about Yan Ning? Or is it that they firmly believe these speculations have no teeth?
Selecting really young county chiefs isn’t a problem. The leap-frog advancement of cadres isn’t a problem. It’s not even important how illustrious the experiences of a cadre are. What is most critical is that you give the public a reason, and that this reason be sufficient to answer doubts. This is a basic requirement of open government information, and a bottom-line requirement of satisfying the public’s right to know (知情权) so that they may supervise their government. Knowing this bottom line but turning a blind and cool eye can only lead one to believe that relevant departments recognize the ineffectuality of public opinion.
Unlike the local government in Hebei, which [clearly] views the clamor of public opinion was nothing, Hubei’s Yidu City (宜都市) recently dealt with the “25-year-old beauty as township chief” (25岁美女镇长) case in a manner worthy of note. They opened the front door and invited media to report on this story, and the person concerned faced the public directly, thoroughly releasing information about personnel appointments and dismissals, a case of successful crisis management (危机公关).
But as we designate these varying responses as either “successes” or “failures” [of crisis management], we must recognize that those who “failed,” even as they clearly lost in the court of public opinion, are not facing real pressure, because pressure clearly cannot result in any real consequences for those who “failed.”
We have talked a great deal in the past about why the level of trust in society is so low. We have voiced distress at how unreasonable the emotions of internet users can be. And we have called energetically on the public to avoid endlessly attributing the most nefarious intentions to the government and officials. All of these thoughts have been positive and significant. But what is regrettable is that every time a particular case [like this one] arises, it seems to expose all of these ideas as pale and feeble.
Perhaps not long ago, relevant government departments in Hebei were dealing with the issue of how to interact with the public, how to raise the credibility of the government [as an abstract issue]. But as soon as the Yan Ning affair becomes a public issue, they just seem not to care — not to care about the emotional reaction of web users, not to care about the nasty supposition the public might make, and caring even less about how high or low the public’s level of trust in them is.
The answer to the repeated waves of incidents involving official appointments, and to the hearsay flying to and fro, is naturally first and foremost about open government information, and about transparency of procedure. But most importantly, public opinion must be able to exercise real pressure, becoming something that has to be dealt with.