SUN WUKONG Carrying the can for China's tragedies
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - China has unleashed a "storm of punishment" for top officials
linked to tragedies like the Sanlu milk powder scandal and deadly catastrophes
in its mining and transport industries, but it remains unclear how far it is
willing to take this newfound push for accountability.
Chinese commentators say the sacking of a number of senior Chinese officials in
the wake of the tragic incidents, including several at the ministerial level,
marks the start of a new official system of accountability, even for the
state's upper echelons.
But the official criteria for holding leaders accountable remains unclear, and
its implementation vague and sometimes very arbitrary. To make the system work
effectively, standards are
needed to clarify which level of officials are to be held accountable and for
what kinds of incidents.
Li Changjang, the minister in charge of the General Administration of Quality
Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) - China's top product quality
watchdog - on September 22 stepped down over the far-from-over milk formula
crisis, which has to date left four infants dead and thousands hospitalized.
Beijing has also sacked the party chief and several senior officials from
Shijiazhuang city, where the Sanlu Group is based. As the party chief of
Shijiazhuang is a vice-minister-level post - because the city is the capital of
Hebei province - the crisis so far has seen two officials at the minister level
sacked in the purge. State media have described the firings a "storm of
Following the fatal mudslide triggered by the collapse of an illegal iron-ore
waste reservoir in northern Shanxi province on September 8 [see
Mud sticks in China mining disaster , Sep 16], the governor of Shanxi
province, Meng Xuenong, "resigned". Meanwhile, Beijing had already dismissed
the vice governor and other provincial and city officials.
Although the punishments have been welcomed, in other deadly accidents only
minor officials have faced the wrath of the central government, with top
officials from China's hierarchy emerging unscathed.
A deadly rail accident which occurred on the morning of April 28 on the
Qingdao-Jinan railway in Shandong province - when a passenger train traveling
from Beijing to Qingdao jumped its tracks, causing another passenger train
coming from the opposite direction to also derail - killed at least 70 people
and left another 416 injured.
The subsequent investigation found that the accident was caused by human error,
specifically the poor management of the local railway authority, the second
fatal accident under its jurisdiction in three months. Beijing immediately
sacked the director of the Jinan Railway Bureau, Chen Gong, and put he and the
company's Communist Party chief, Cai Tiemin, under investigation.
But so far no senior official with the Ministry of Railways has stepped down,
signifying a big setback in Beijing's purported push for accountability. As
early as 1988, then-minister of railways Ding Guangeng stepped down after an
express passenger train from Kunming to Shanghai derailed, killing 88 and
On September 20, a night club in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, caught
fire killing 43 people and leaving 54 hospitalized. Authorities found that the
club was never licensed, and Hong Kong's pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Po
claimed it was partly owned by a low-ranking Shenzhen police officer
Dealing with the aftermath, the Shenzhen party committee and municipal
government sacked a number of officials, but the highest-ranking was a vice
director of Shenzhen's Longgang District - a small potato in terms of China's
The concept of "accountability" should normally apply to all officials, but
China still makes no distinction between politically appointed officials and
civil servants, and even Communist Party officials are regarded as civil
servants. If China is willing to define which posts are politically appointed,
then it would be easier to implement an accountability system.
Quickly re-appointing officials purged for their links to distasteful incidents
will also affect public trust in the accountability system and make it seem an
unlikely deterrent. This has happened in the past.
After the 1988 railway accident, Ding, a known bridge partner of former
paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, was soon assigned to head the Taiwan Affairs
Office after stepping down as the minister of railways. He was later promoted
to the politburo to manage state propaganda.
Meng Xuenong was purged for covering up of the outbreak of severe acute
respiratory syndrome (SARS) and stepped down as mayor of Beijing in early 2003.
But Meng, considered to be a protege of President Hu Jintao, was given the post
in Shanxi last year.
Political accountability must also not replace legal responsibility. In the
tainted-milk case, it has been reported that the Shijiazhuang officials knew
for months that Sanlu Group's products were contaminated with melamine but
turned a blind eye. If this is true, then the relevant officials are
accomplices to the fact and must face criminal charges even after their
In China it may seem like progress to introduce the concept of accountability,
but until the system is strengthened and its aim rings more true, real
accountability appears out of reach and more tragedies seem inevitable.