17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China

Red Cadres Learn from the Stars and Stripes

The scenario is unique from every perspective: from September 2005 to April 2006, five Chinese officials from Sichuan Province received job skills training in Georgia and Minnesota, starting with a two-month-long classroom course followed by six months of job shadowing at the two states’ relevant government departments. Their objective was to gain insight on how the American government operates by shadowing state department commissioners -- their mentors -- as they went about their daily work.

Time Differences

Zhao Shiyong is chief agronomist at the Sichuan Provincial Department of Agriculture. In his capacity as aide assigned to the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, he assumed he would attend fewer meetings than at home. Working alongside Commissioner Gene Hugoson and Assistant Commissioner Perry Aasness revealed, however, that they, in common with their Chinese counterparts, “spent most of their time at various meetings.” But there was a main difference in that their meetings were efficient and to the point, with no long, ritualistic opening speeches or round-up summaries.

On one occasion, Assistant Commissioner Perry chaired a meeting that discussed air quality on Minnesota pig farms. Similar meetings that Zhao had attended back home would generally last no less than half a day, beginning with a background speech by the chair, followed by a report from the relevant department before the delegates were actually asked for their opinions. These meetings would end with the top leader making a key, conclusive speech.

Perry’s meeting lasted just half an hour. When Zhao asked him why he didn’t give a summary speech. Perry answered, “As the chief executive of this work, I already have my own understanding of it and ideas on related issues, which I call on for verification only. If others agree with me, there’s no need for repetition. We do, of course, discuss any disagreements that may occur.”

After attending many American executive meetings, Zhao Shiyong began to compare them with those he had attended back in China that, he had to acknowledge, consisted mainly of empty speeches. He recalls, “For example, construction of a new socialist countryside is a good, clear proposal put forth by the central government. The question at issue with lower governments is how to implement it. But when a lower level government meets to discuss such a topic, it apes the meeting style of that of the higher level. Consequently there are needless repetitions as to the significance of the task.”

He found things in the US very different. “The principles regarding many issues have been defined by law, their implementation plans having been thoroughly discussed by Congress. The main concern of executive meetings is to realize these plans.”

Since his return to China, Zhao has tried to introduce a new style of meeting within the sphere of his jurisdiction. The day after his interview with this reporter, he chaired a meeting concerning work skills training for migrant workers. After perusing a speech written by the deputy director of the Sichuan Provincial Department of Agriculture, he cut its more than 20 pages to just seven. As Zhao had learned in Minnesota, “There’s no need to repeat the significance of this scheme. We’ve been doing the work for several years, so everyone should know just how important it is.” Zhao also restricted the meeting's length to no more than two hours.

Liu Tie, deputy director of the Legal Affairs Department of Sichuan Province, admitted that working in a US state government did not carry the same connotations of “officialdom” as back home. He liked the way that American officials defined themselves simply as “working for” the government, or a certain government department. He confesses, “The Chinese public servant system is a relatively closed inner-working structure that emphasizes hierarchy and ranking. Such a structure generally gives rise to a mistaken sense of personal authority and subjective officialdom game rules.”

The Role of the Government

After half a year of job shadowing, the five Sichuan officials gained a clear understanding of how their American counterparts worked, which, in turn, helped them to formulate ideas on how a local Chinese government should work. Liu Xin, deputy director of the Sichuan Provincial Department of Commerce, speaks of his understanding of public administration as far as his job is concerned, “Public administration should be applied as a contingency measure when the market economy hits glitches that the market mechanism fails to solve. This involves analysis of various interests groups and accurate calculation of policy costs. The government should tread very carefully in any considered intervention and be prudent in its implementation of public policy.”

Liu Xin’s main worry is that of indiscreet public administration. He believes that the current system of Chinese government allows local leaders, particularly the area chief, too high a degree of freedom, which puts them beyond the control of the legal system. “The central government currently encourages local governments to work for the substantial benefits of their constituents, which, in principle, is a good and rightful policy. But if they implement policy without having been through the due process of consideration and analysis, choosing instead to become involved in complex, indiscreet web of ‘good-will’ moves, they risk being perceived as a ‘monopolistic government.’”

Having observed the US from close up and in a contemplative frame of mind, Chinese officials see significance in the smallest of details. Luo Xiaodong, deputy director of the Sichuan Provincial Bureau of Agricultural Machinery, once noticed a postal worker waiting in his car to collect mail from a roadside mailbox, a few minutes earlier than the scheduled time of collection at 16:00 pm. He sat in his car reading a newspaper, and did not open the mailbox until the designated hour.

Luo’s first reaction was that this was an inflexible attitude. But, on second thoughts, he realized that as a government service department, the post office could receive complaints from the people that missed this delivery round by the space of just a few minutes. Delaying collection by a few minutes could also cause public complaint, in view of the potentially damaging consequences it could have. This experience made Luo appreciate the importance of strict observance of rules. “Strict administration should be exercised according to law, not on the subjective basis of what seems fit to the relevant individual. A government should neither transcend its power nor default on its duties. Excessive administrative power is a serious problem in our government,” admits Luo Xiaodong.

History and Reality

In late 1905 the Qing imperial government sent five ministers on a six-month trip to Japan, the United States and major European countries to study the respective constitutions and political and economic systems. Exactly 100 years later, five Chinese provincial officials arrived in the US to embark upon state level study.

The purpose of the two delegations was the same: to learn from Western experience in order to improve their government. The late Qing delegation, however, yielded few results. the Qing imperial court planned to establish a constitutional government based on the findings of these trips, after first compiling an imperial cabinet, but all efforts to save the dying Manchurian dynasty were doomed.

Unlike this last-straw effort of 100 years ago, these five Sichuan officials flew across the ocean at the time when a booming China was opening ever-wider to world advanced experience and know-how. They were also possessed of the necessary intellectual qualifications and psychological readiness to distinguish, embrace and digest that which benefits China.

Zhao Shiyong, born in 1967, started working for the Sichuan Provincial Department of Agriculture after graduating from Southwest Agricultural University. He obtained his Ph.D in agriculture from Sichuan Agricultural University in 2003, and already had work and study experience in the United States, Japan and the Philippines before the job shadow trip. The other four officials had similar backgrounds -- outstanding expertise in their fields and foreign training experience.

The Sichuan government started its overseas training program in 1992. To date, more than 2,000 of its officials above the third echelon (as earlier described) have studied abroad. Minnesota University, its major overseas training program partner, has enrolled 80 Sichuan officials since 2002.

Certain media evaluated Sichuan’s job-shadow program as a “breakthrough in Chinese official overseas training.” The Organization Department of the CPC Sichuan Provincial Committee acknowledged that this was the first time the Sichuan government had cooperated with foreign universities and local governments in training its officials. Sun Zhaohua, vice director of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, monitored and highly commended the project in Minnesota. Chinese Ambassador to the US Zheng Zeguang also regards this program as an effective approach to Chinese officials' learning from foreign counterparts.

(By Xu Beike)



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