No shelter from the storm

Old problems for China’s youngest mayor

No shelter from the storm

He should have said no to the photos in the melon patch. Especially the one beneath an umbrella held out by a helpful colleague. That will be one of the early lessons in the political career of China’s youngest mayor, Zhou Senfeng.

The appointment of the 29 year-old to the city of Yicheng in Hubei province – as well as his brief appearance in the fruit field – has stirred up a storm in the local press.

In other countries, the promotion of youthful candidates to positions of authority can sometimes be seen as a positive.

Political parties like to refer to the injecting of ‘new blood’. There is talk too of fresh pairs of eyes and the opportunity to ‘reconnect’ with young audiences. This all offers the chance to roll back some of the worldly cynicism that inevitably catches up on the political profession.

You might think that this would be the case in China too, given the poor reputation of so many local bureaucrats.

But the response to news of Zhou’s elevation has hardly been celebratory. There is more than a hint of jealousy at his rapid progress. But others just doubt if he is ready for his mayoral responsibilities. Many wonder if he has even completed the mandatory periods of ‘grass roots’ experience necessary for his current role. In a country where seniority is typically associated with age, most mayors in China are at least 10-15 years older than Zhou.

The photo of the youthful mayor giving on-the-spot-guidance in the melon patch has also turned out to be something of a schoolboy error – as it is allowing the critics to slam him for appearing self-important.

Why could he not hold his own umbrella, they ask?

A picture of Wen Jiabao doing just that on a similar field trip is doing the rounds, and it is being contrasted to the young mayor’s presumed arrogance.

In fact, Zhou is probably feeling anything but imperious at the moment.

Aside from the questions in the print media, he is also under attack from an outbreak of “human flesh search”, the increasingly common practice in which thousands of netizens gather online to dissect the record of an individual in the public eye.

This cyber lynch mob was the first to pick up on the umbrella-in-the-melon-patch images. It then moved on to a milder spasm of rage on the sighting of some expensive cigarettes ($17 a pack) in another Zhou photo.

Now the mob is upping the ante, with scrutiny of Zhou’s postgraduate dissertation from his time at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Sections of his work are said to resemble an earlier thesis written by someone else, and the university is reported to be investigating.

Bruised by the whole experience, Zhou is falling back on the best traditions of the defensive sound bite, and asking to be left alone to get on with the job of representing the people. He has made the right noises too about being young, humble and anxious to learn.

Anyway, despite their best efforts, the human flesh searchers have failed to uncover clear evidence of nepotism in Zhou’s appointment. He appears to come from a relatively poor background. His parents were ceramic workers. Not the types to have many strings to pull.

Even so, Zhou’s youth continues to look like more of a hindrance than a help.

The People’s Daily even ran an online poll in which half of respondents agreed that he would probably be more susceptible to corruption because of his young age.

What ever happened to the idealism of youth?

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