Party pooper

The job no one wants

Party pooper

Linfen: nicknamed the 'Modern Fruit and Flower Town' in the 1980s. Times have changed...

With his employment options in the UK having narrowed in recent months, maybe Sir Fred Goodwin could take on the job that 1.3 billion Chinese don’t seem to want to apply for. But its a somewhat different role to his former position at the head of RBS. Sir Fred would have to move to Shanxi, as the job in question is to become the Communist party secretary of Linfen.

The city of Linfen is one of China’s ancient capitals, the seat of the early emperor Yao, over forty centuries ago.

In more recent times it has become a graveyard for bureaucrats’ careers.

Linfen has had four mayors since 2005. That’s a replacement rate rivalled only by English football club, Newcastle United, which has had five managers since 2006.

Linfen saw its most recent party secretary, Xia Zhengui suspended and investigated last year, after the fracturing of a local dam. Xia was held ‘accountable’ for the accident, which killed 170 people. Previously, another disaster with fatalities, at the Hongtong coal mine, had done for the promising career of Mayor Li Tiantai.

Disastrous events have not been the sole blight on bureaucrats’ prospects. Last year 14 senior officials were investigated for bribery.

While the city waits to hear from interested candidates, the acting mayor of Linfen, Luo Qingyu, has also doubled as party secretary (a more senior role than mayor).

So what exactly is the problem with Linfen, you may be asking?

The city is in coal mining country. As discussed in WiC1, Shanxi province is the coal capital of China, and in the go-go years its mineral resources were plundered by a colourful set of ‘coal barons’. These men became fabulously rich. The well-being of their miners was usually a secondary concern.

Of course, government officials were supposed to regulate just such a conflict, and ensure that the mines were safe. But these same officials often found themselves allied with the mine owners. It was in their interest to ensure mine output was maximized so as to hit GDP growth targets for their provinces. As the bribery investigations suggest, these interests sometimes took on a personal financial dimension too.

All this has led to a legacy of neglect and bureaucratic underperformance. Then again, popular website Da Zhong quotes local analysts as saying some of the recent career culls have been a tad unjust. Linfen has faced chronic problems for years – and it was official indifference to safety over a lengthy period that led to the spate of accidents. The website notes that some of the hapless officials dropped into Linfen did not even know “what was going on before being dismissed”.

The lesson has not been lost on potential applicants for the position today. Da Zhong calls Linfen a “hot potato” and reports that Shanxi’s provincial party leadership continues to struggle to find anyone willing to take office. That’s why the party secretary’s role has been vacant for over six months.

Ironically enough, a famous literary idiom – that is said to have originated in Linfen – warns that ‘a tiger in the wrong terrain will even be assaulted by dogs’. Meaning, perhaps, that even the most talented person – when given the wrong assignment – is sure to fail. In more modern parlance, the new party secretary of Linfen is probably on a hiding to nothing.

Indeed, the nation’s most capable government officials seem to have concluded that too many tigers have perished in Linfen already. Why be the next?

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