Sloppy officials face the music

Updated: 2012-07-05 08:05

By Hu Yongqi (China Daily)

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Crackdown on shoddy work gains praise. Hu Yongqi reports from Chenzhou, Hunan.

Chen Zhenling feels lucky this year. The toxic fumes emanating from a chemical warehouse in her neighborhood are about to be dispersed for good.

Sloppy officials face the music

Officials from the bureau of urban management in Chenzhou, Hunan province were sent to a chemical warehouse on June 15 to review a complaint about environmental pollution after a resident, Chen Zhenling, called a complaint hotline to report the problem. Photos by Cui Meng / China Daily

The 45-year-old insurance agent moved to the Huize neighborhood in Chenzhou in Hunan province in 2008. However, she soon discovered that a chemical warehouse storing sulfuric and hydrochloric acids was situated less than 30 meters from her apartment. Every day, her husband and son suffered from the fumes and pungent smells as the chemicals were sold from large plastic containers.

She became anxious about the consequences: People are more vulnerable to throat infections and even cancer of the respiratory tract if exposed to the acids over a prolonged period, according to the doctors she consulted. Moreover, Chen was particularly worried about her 10-year-old son. She was 35 when the boy was born, meaning that she was unlikely to have any more children. The boy was invaluable to the family and no harm was allowed to befall him.

Chen and her neighbors quickly submitted complaints to the Chenzhou bureau of environmental protection. The bureau said it could conduct tests, but wouldn't be able to enforce the law against the warehouse owner. The ball was then kicked to the urban management bureau, but it simply notified Chen of a shortage of testing equipment.

Hope dawned in February when a campaign to crack down on inefficient officials got under way. The protagonists aim to eradicate neglect of duty and other malpractice, such as graft or gambling. In total, 28 complaint offices, led by the Chenzhou commission for discipline inspection, were set up in 19 city government departments and nine district or county governments. Residents file complaints to the offices, which can then urge other departments to resolve proven problems.

In April, Chen called a complaint hotline and explained her problem. Ten days later, officials from the bureaus of environmental protection and urban management visited the warehouse. The owner Jiang Tiejun promised to seal the containers until June 15 and to close the facility entirely by July 30.

"My husband and I did not expect them (the officials) to act so swiftly. This time, we feel we're getting more attention from the city government because the complaint office is pushing for a solution," said Chen.

Recently, a number of local governments in China have cracked down on officials who have long been a byword for indolence and inefficiency. Overall, Chenzhou residents agree that they have gained from the crackdown and want it installed as a long-term mechanism instead of a short-term measure.

A tough job

Despite Chen's initial hopes, solving the problems posed by the chemicals warehouse was easier said than done. It was constructed in the 1950s when the area was not so populous and in 2004, the owner Jiang Tiejun started to store the acids on open ground outside the warehouse because he was worried that the building would collapse.

In 2008, Chen Zhenling and 2,000 other families moved to Huize. The new residents attempted to talk to Jiang, to ask him to relocate his facility, but he always avoided meeting them.

Sloppy officials face the music

Official visits a chemical warehouse on June 15 after reports from residents tah toxic gases from sulfuric and hydrochloric acids were still leaking into their neigborhood.

Following Chen's call, the complaint office forwarded a report to the bureaus of environmental protection and urban management in May. Both had to respond within 10 days, according to regulations. Then came the meeting and Jiang's promise.

The complaint office makes unscheduled visits to check the result of each case. On June 15, the date the containers were supposed to be sealed, Liu Yong, a complaint office employee, visited the warehouse to check adherence to the agreement. He concealed his car's license plate for fear that observers would either stop him or warn Jiang of his impending arrival.

Xie Bin, a reporter from Chenzhou TV station, shot footage of the warehouse. A thick, heavy cloud was fizzing from one of the containers and Liu said he felt dizzy after breathing the pungent odor for 10 minutes, as did Xie. Liu called both bureaus and insisted, "You must come to the scene right now."

Officials rushed to the scene. When Liu asked why the problem still existed, Zhong Wenjun, an urban management officer, said pipelines running to the warehouse had been destroyed the previous day. However, Jiang said he was still waiting for a permit from the provincial authorities to find another location, so the containers had remained in situ. "All my men are retired soldiers and they need this work to survive," he told the officials. "I did all I could to cooperate, but that's all I can do now."

After 30 minutes' negotiation, Jiang ordered his men to cover the containers and promised to move the acid as soon as the permit was issued.

"Things are still not settled, so we'll have to wait until July 30 to see if the containers will be taken away," said Chen. "But I am still thankful to the complaint office."

Implementation checks can be a risky business. In April, a resident in Qinghe township in Guiyang county reported that the local government had done nothing to prevent a private company from engaging in illegal sand extraction, causing pollution and disturbing residents at night.

When Lei Xudong from the complaint office visited the site with colleagues, they were warned that the owner might send guards to beat them if he suspected they were gathering evidence. Township officials had required police protection after being threatened by dozens of guards during a previous checkup.

"We were not scared, but didn't want to put our lives in danger, so the cameraman had to shoot his footage with a zoom lens," said Lei.

Restore trust

Although locals were encouraged to file their complaints and the hotline number was put up at bus stops, on TV and in local newspapers, many residents were initially scornful of the complaint office. To some extent, they felt that it was simply "a show", so Chen asked a friend to make a trial run and contact the office with a complaint. "The office called back promptly and sent officials to his home," said Chen. "For me, that was a sign that they were really doing something, instead of just shouting slogans."

Liu Guangyue, secretary of the Chenzhou commission for discipline inspection, suggested that previous cases of corruption were likely responsible for the distrust.

From 2006 to 2009, a series of corruption cases involving top officials shocked locals and the provincial government. In 2008, former Party chief Li Dalun was sentenced to death with a two-year grace period. Li and his wife had been convicted of taking bribes totaling 14 million yuan ($2.2 million). Moreover, he was unable to explain his personal fortune of 17 million yuan.

The same year, Zeng Jinchun, former secretary of the Chenzhou commission for discipline inspection, was executed after being convicted of taking 195 bribes. Meanwhile, a former mayor, Zhou Zhengkun, was sentenced to life in prison for accepting bribes worth 13.26 million yuan. Finally, a former deputy mayor Lei Yuanli was handed a 20-year sentence after being found guilty of taking 7.21 million yuan in bribes.

"Corruption has hampered Chenzhou's economic development. But more important, it eroded public trust in local government," said Liu.

The city government sent a delegation to Shanxi province in November to learn how to prevent malpractice and corruption. Three months later, the crackdown was under way.

The rules are simple: Any official involved in workplace graft and gambling is removed from office, as are any proved to have driven drunk or taken gifts during weddings or funerals. All officials caught playing computer games or trading on the stock market during working hours are demoted.

Wang Changhong, former deputy director of Chenzhou bureau of agricultural machinery, who had been on paid leave since November, was dismissed from his post in March.

As of June 29, at least 980 officials had been punished, including 18 county-level officials and 312 at township-level. Four out of 72 dismissed officials operated at county-level, the highest level in the city government of Chenzhou.

"Less than 1,000 of 100,000 officials in Chenzhou were found to be indisciplined, indicating that most officials are good," said Liu Guangyue.

As of June 28, 518 out of 639 complaints filed with the office focused on the officials' working methods and efficiency. In each case, the government department continues its investigations until the complainant states they are satisfied with the actions taken. So far that number stands at around 390.

In 2009, only 54 percent of Chenzhou locals surveyed said they had confidence in the government's disciplinary and anti-corruption efforts. That figure rose to 81 percent in 2011, and Liu said the number is likely to rise this year too.

Long-term mission

Jiang Zhengrong, 26, was moved temporarily to the Chenzhou complaint office from Liaojiang township government in Zixing city in February.

Nine employees, all from other government departments, work in the office on a one-year deployment, returning to their original jobs once the 12 months have elapsed. According to the regulations, Jiang Zhengrong is likely to return to her old job, but that may change. "I will probably work for the office for another year, but I'm not sure," she said.

"But we are under pressure to resolve the complaints, because you know guanxi (connections) are very close in this small city. Sometimes our employees have to run checks on their own relatives or superiors at work," said Liu.

Unlike some previous anti-corruption efforts, many officials initially treated the campaign as a meteor, coming rapidly and passing swiftly. For them, any working method was justified as long as the job was done.

However, Xiang Lili, the Party chief of Chenzhou, said the movement has to last for years and no officials will be spared if they are discovered to have broken the rules.

"Our leadership is determined to keep moving toward better working methods and closer ties with the people. I believe the office will be around for a long time," said Liu Guangyue.

Meanwhile, public participation is essential to the success of the campaign. Liu said the complaint offices are unable to identify all the problems on their own, because of limited resources and finances. "So the point is that the public has to be involved in the campaign", he said.

"This campaign is like a TV drama. People will keep watching if we do things with care and a sense of responsibility. I would like it to be an appealing and valuable service to the public," Liu added.

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Feng Zhiwei in Changsha contributed to this story.