Review: The Transition Period shows the true power center of Chinese government

By Isabella Tianzi Cai

"The Transition Period" shows the inner workings of local politics in China

U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke’s recent arrival in Beijing generated intense discussions among Chinese nationals about how Chinese civil servants compare unfavorably to their American counterparts. As reported in a September 20th article in The Wall Street Journal’s blog “China Real Time Report,” the central government and its affiliated media bodies such as the Guangming Daily and the Xinhua News Agency tried to cast aspersions over the political motives behind the U.S. government’s choice of a Chinese-American ambassador. But Chinese online netizens focused on something entirely different. After seeing photos of Locke buying his own coffee and carrying his own bags, and learning that he flew coach to China, Chinese web commentators assailed their civil servants for squandering taxpayers’ money on ridiculously extravagant meals, cars, and the like, and for shirking physical work and other chores that they consider to be below their dignity.

Zhou Hao’s 2011 documentary The Transition Period, which will be playing next Monday in Chicago’s Doc Films series on Chinese independent cinema, looks at the working life of one typical Chinese civil servant by the name of Guo Yongchang before his transfer to a new post within the Chinese government. Shot over the last three months of Guo working as the party secretary of the Committee of the Communist Party of Gushi County in Xinyang Municipality of Henan Province, this documentary presents different facets of Guo’s work as a medium- to low-level Chinese civil servant in a leading position. This article aims at laying out some groundwork in China’s political system and its political environment for first-time viewers of the documentary, as sometimes the stories in the documentary are more complicated than their presentations. (Spoilers may follow.)

Gushi County has a population of about 1.6 million and a total of 32 towns. Like every other county in China, it is governed by both its county government and county party committee, with the latter having more power over the former. You may read the translation of a popular online joke below to learn about the different roles and levels of clout of five main constituents of the Chinese government:

An eighth-grader asks her mother about the Chinese government, “What does the government do?”

“The government is like me, your mom,” she replies. “I cook for you, wash your clothes, and make your bed. I do all the hard work in this house.”

“What does the party committee do?”

“Well, the party committee is like your father,” Mom replies. “He makes all the important decisions and orders me around to carry them out.”

“What does the People’s Congress do?” the girl continues.

“The People’s Congress is like your grandpa,” Mom replies. “He strolls around with his bird cage every morning but never does anything.”

“What does the Committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference do?”

“Well, the Committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference is like your grandma,” Mom replies. “She complains about everything, but she has no power to change anything.”

The girl asks her last question. “Then what does the commission of discipline inspection do?”

“The commission of discipline inspection is like you,” Mom replies. “You are sheltered, clothed, and fed by all of us, but all you do is check on us.”

For Guo Yongchang, since he is the party secretary of Gushi County, he has more power than Gushi County’s County Chief Fang Bo, who belongs to the county government. This explains why at the beginning of the documentary, many people, including businessmen and petitioners, are seen to go directly to Guo’s office to elicit information, seek advice, and beg for help. At one point in the documentary, Guo likens the role of a party secretary to that of a godfather. The analogy is not a stretch in reality.

A number of instances in the documentary support this analogy. For example, Guo half-suggested half-instructed a two-man envoy about their construction project that instead of building a 26-story building, they should make it 33-story to get his approval. For another, he visited the Bureau of Letters and Calls of Gushi County and approved visitors’ requests without consulting the proper procedures used by the bureau.

In fact, the latter incident echoes Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao’s generous donation of 10,000 yuan to a two-year-old boy suffering from leukemia. Premier Wen was said to have met the body’s poverty-stricken parents at Tianjin Train Station during an inspection trip to Tianjin in September 2009. Although both Guo and Premier Wen have helped the victims in these cases, such single acts of heroism will not bring structural changes to China’s political system.

"The Transition Period"

This is why Guo lives in contradictory terms with himself. In one of his reflective moments, he said that he supported a new policy by the standing committee of both the municipal and the provincial party committees in China, which was to handpick party officials with law degrees to join their league. He believed this to be a positive change because China should follow the rule of law, rather than the rule of people.

However, his words do not often match his actions. The biggest breach to his own words are probably the dinner parties and drinking parties that he has frequently attended. At one of the meetings, he urged the civil servants in Gushi County to help cut government spending by drinking less. According to the government report, Gushi County’s income amounted to 280 million yuan in 2008, but its spending surpassed 12 billion yuan in the same year. Yet, these reminders about frugality were never taken seriously, even by himself. Every time he was at a party, we see him emptying glasses after glasses and cups after cups of alcohol.

But as Zhou points out at the beginning of the documentary, Chinese civil servants have two major responsibilities, one being that of attracting investors. To do so, they often need to drink excessively at meals as drinking is an integral part of socialization, and deals are broached and sealed in drinking parties.

This convention inevitably applies to Guo. He confessed in a farewell party with the People’s Congress of Gushi County that he had big ambitions for Gushi when he was appointed its party secretary. He chose to socialize with businesspeople because he wanted to convince them to invest in Gushi.

In the same confession statement that Guo made in front of the retired officials, he said in tears that the work that he had done for Guishi had never been for his own career advancement. In fact, it all harmed his career. What he meant was that the central government would likely consider him a corrupt official who spent much without making a profit because Gushi’s spending far exceeded its income. However, the businesspeople he had entertained at various meals and parties thought differently. They considered Guo the best government official to work with and Gushi the best place to invest. Why? It is probably because Guo showered them with many forms of government concessions and subsidies.

Sadly, Guo’s understanding of government concessions and subsidies is rather limited. He told a story twice in the documentary to illustrate the relationship between government and businesses. The story goes that in 1958, heavy deforestation in Huzu Town of Gushi County caused a local reservoir to slowly dry out, and subsequently it stopped migrating egrets from coming. However, in the 1990s, after trees were planted back, the birds also came back. In Guo’s negotiations with businessmen, he usually offered money-related incentives as a welcome sign, be it a waiver on electricity or a generous monetary gift. If this is not an overstatement, then he seems to have naively treated trees as a metaphor for money in his story.

Yet money cannot buy everything. Local governments are supposed to bring systematic improvements to their districts, counties, etc. Human capital and infrastructure are only two examples of the areas that local governments can help improve.

Director Zhou Hao

Guo planned to leave his office before the Chinese New Year in 2009. News of his transfer naturally caused unease in the county government as well as in the municipal and provincial party committee because new officials needed to be appointed. Who would get appointed in what positions was always a potential source of resentment in the Chinese government and it could obstruct work within the government.

This can be reflected in a complaint made by Guo’s secretary. She mentioned that a civil servant working at the grassroots level did not want to be transferred to the committee of people’s political consultative conference because he would have no future there. Instead, he expressed wishes to work in the general office of the party committee or in the local labor bureau, which has become the ministry of human resource and social security today.

A complication is also involved in such transfers. Guo spoke jokingly about a personal encounter. He said that one time when he was in Beijing, a high-ranking government official met him and some others for dinner. After the meal, he saw him packing up all the food and riding off with his bicycle with many bags. Compared to the official, a county-level party secretary or a county chief lived much better materially.

It is certainly not true that all high-ranking officials are as thrifty as the one in Guo’s story. But most Chinese will agree that Chinese civil servants are not as egalitarian as Gary Locke. As some of you have probably read the following quote by Mencius: “One either does mental work or manual work. The one who does mental work rules, and the one who does manual work is being ruled.” The idea that a civil servant must not labor physically like a physical worker is deeply entrenched in the Chinese mentality. This explains why in the documentary, when the buses and cars that some officials rode got stuck in the New Year snow, they only helped with clearing the icy road begrudgingly, if they did so at all. They returned to their comfortable seats soon after making some gestures of help. County Chief Fang, who later becomes Party Secretary, even exclaims, “This is hard work!”

For the construction workers who blocked the government building of Gushi County to protest not getting paid for their hard work, they certainly have an indisputable screen image of “being ruled.” Outside the government building, they openly argue with Guo about their delayed payment. But once inside the government building, and their number reduced from a big group to a small clique of five representatives, they appear tamed, docile, and very quiet. Party Secretary Fang lambasts them for blocking the gates and obstructing government work, and he threatens them with tougher measures if they refuse to cooperate. The representatives leave with promises from Fang, though Fang seems more motivated to save his job than to help them with their problems.

For those who are curious about Guo Yongchang and want to find out more about his life, his Baidu entry states that he works at the bureau of letters and serves as an inspector now. However, he himself has been inspected by the State Bureau of Letters and Calls and the Ministry of Inspection under the State Council for corruption, and he was found to have received bribes of 740,000 yuan and an additional 10,000 USD. This may puzzle those who’ve seen the film, because in one secretly filmed scene he actually orders someone to return the money that had been sent to him as a bribe. Perhaps he returned some bribes and kept others; how he decided which to accept is left undisclosed. The reality is always more complicated than it seems.

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