China’s official Xinhua News Agency announced September 14 that the governor of Shanxi province, Meng Xuenong, had resigned from his post along with his deputy following the deaths of over 250 people in a mudlside. You can see more details on the mudslide here, but it’s pretty clear that it was caused by sloppy enforcement of mining safety rules, hence the governor’s resignation. Optimists might say that this is a sign that the Communist Party is making top officials directly responsible for such disasters. They might point out that Meng’s replacement is none other that the recently appointed head of China’s deferal work safety supervisory body, showing how seriously Beijing is taking the incident. It is true that the central government has been stepping in more often to make even low level officials reponsible for their actions (see this story of ours about the dismissal of the Party Secretary and Police Chief in Weng’an, for example).
But as ever in China, the picture isn’t quite so simple. Meng happens to have been forced of office before for similar reasons. He was no less than Mayor of Beijing and was canned after evidence of mishandling and cover up emerged in the wake of the 2003 SARS crisis. Like many other officials (google “Xie Zhenghua” for example), Meng (who is viewed as having the backing of President Hu Jintao in the factional struggles that do much to determine the course of Communist Party politics) was most definitely down but not out. After eleven months cooling his heels as deputy director of the Office of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project Construction Committee (which is actually a bigger job than it sounds, tho certainly nothing like being mayor of the country’s capital), he was quietly slotted in as deputy Party Secretary in Shanxi, an obvious precursor to being rehabilitated.He may not be able to come back from this second dismissal, but you never know. So long as appointments, particularly at the topmost levels, are determined by who you know rather than merit, China won’t be able to make any real progress in attempting to stem the tide of disasters and corruption fueled scandals that are currently plaguing the country. This isn’t a uniquely Chinese problem of course (Hurricane Katrina, anyone?) but with the scale of the disasters in workplaces or the environmental destruction going on, addressing its root causes is that much more urgent. As I wrote recently, time is running out for real reform.