Overseas program benefits officials

Updated: 2011-01-13 07:59

By Jiang Xueqing, Hu Haiyan and Eric Jou in Beijing (China Daily)

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 Overseas program benefits officials
Clockwise from top: Dan Durning (second right), former director of the International Center for Democratic Governance in Georgia, poses with Chinese officials, from left, Liu Xin, Liu Tie and Xiao Jun in October 2005; Liu Xin chats with American colleagues in December 2005; Liu Xin at the University of Georgia in 2005. Photos Provided to China Daily

Overseas program benefits officials

Overseas program benefits officials

Foreign placement helps civil servants study methods used in other countries. Jiang Xueqing, Hu Haiyan and Eric Jou in Beijing report.

For Chinese government officials, tedious meetings filled with long-winded speeches are an occupational hazard.

"They take up a big part of our daily schedule, and in most cases are unnecessarily long," said Zhao Shiyong, 43, deputy chief of the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province.

However, for the last five years, he has been overhauling his department to make meetings faster and more efficient - thanks to an eight-month internship in the United States.

"I went to a meeting that would have lasted half a day in China, but (in the US) it lasted just half an hour," he said. "We'd have had a speaker make a long opening speech, then he'd talk about every department and then experts would make long speeches. There was none of that.

"Now when I hold a big meeting I make sure it lasts a maximum of two hours," he added.

Zhao was among five officials from Southwest China chosen to shadow counterparts in Georgia and Minnesota in 2005 and 2006 as part of an innovative program. Today, overseas placements are one of the most popular and important forms of on-the-job training for China's civil servants.

The rapid development of China's economy has increased demand for more administrators with cross-cultural knowledge and a global vision, and pushed the internationalization of talents to the top of the agenda.

Beijing's Dongcheng district government announced in November it will place its most promising workers with a host of international organizations, companies and governments in developed countries.

The authority, which has previously sent staff members to China's Hong Kong special administrative region and South Korea, aims to have 20 percent of its staff trained overseas by 2030 using a special talent development fund. Annual investment in 2011 will be at least 50 million yuan ($7.5 million), with the sum likely to increase every year.

"The plan reflects a strategic vision," said Wu Degui, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Personnel Science, in an interview with People's Daily online.

Expert exchanges

The tradition of sending Chinese cadres overseas for work experience can be traced back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Toward the end of 1905, the ruling Guangxu Emperor sent five high-ranking officials to Japan, the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and other countries.

After witnessing the success of Japan's constitutional monarchy, the emperor was desperate to learn from other political and economic systems to help with his own reforms. His plan achieved disappointing results and, within a few years, his dynasty had fallen apart.

Since the founding of New China in 1949, the destination for officials has gradually shifted from the former Soviet Union to the US and Singapore.

To gain experience in economic development, Chinese originally shadowed Soviet officials to learn about science and technology.

About 10,000 people received education or training in then-Soviet Russia and other eastern European countries between 1950 and 1963, including former vice-premiers Zou Jiahua and Qian Qichen.

However, expert exchanges with the Soviet Union were halted when relations between the two states soured in 1965.

It was another 13 years before China sent its first batch of 52 officials to study in the US, shortly before the two established diplomatic relations. Since then, increasing numbers have been trained in the West.

Cheng Siwei, the former vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, was one of the first persons from the Chinese mainland to obtain an MBA degree at the University of California in the early 1980s.

One of the biggest major training bases for Chinese civil servants is Harvard University. In 2002, the State Council's Development Research Center jointly launched a training program with the prestigious Ivy League college and Tsinghua University's school of public policy and management.

Funded by Amway, the world's largest direct selling company, the nine-week program aims to prepare Chinese officials to manage unprecedented economic growth by combining unique expertise with instruction on best practices in public policy. Following three weeks at Tsinghua University with professors from Harvard's John F. Kennedy school of government, participants go to the US for study tours and classroom instruction.

By the end of 2007, 300 high-ranking public servants from central and local authorities had benefited from the program. Organizers previously set a target of training 55 students every year from 2008 to 2012.

Governments in Sichuan, Jiangsu and other provinces have also sent workers to developed countries for experience.

To explore the scientific theories behind the development of Silicon Valley, since 2009 Jiangyin, a city in Jiangsu with a population of 1.2 million, has enrolled 60 promising young officials on three-month programs at Stanford University in California.

Singapore is another major destination for Chinese officials thanks to its fast economic development and social stability under the ruling People's Action Party.

During a tour of South China in 1992, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping suggested officials should learn from Singapore.

That year, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore started offering special training programs, lasting from one week to three months.

In 2005, the university also launched an MPA program with the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China for provincial leaders above the levels of mayor and department director. Most courses are designed in accordance with the situation in China, with recent topics including industry upgrades and transformation.

Today, more than 30 countries and regions offer overseas training to Chinese civil servants, according to the latest available data from the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs.

Making it work

Training programs have helped officials achieve significant results at work. Following his return from an internship in the US, Liu Xin, deputy director-general of Sichuan's department of commerce, was told to use his experiences to bring more jobs to the province.

Small businesses are the backbone of the US economy and receive numerous benefits. However, in China only large businesses and corporations enjoy preferential policies.

During his time shadowing the commissioner of Georgia's Department of Economic Development, he observed that the authority paid more attention to creating better jobs than to revenues generated by companies. The state offered a variety of tax credits to boost employment.

Now, Sichuan is putting small firms on an equal footing with corporations with eight different training programs that teach would-be entrepreneurs how to make businesses more efficient.

"We also send owners and entrepreneurs abroad to learn the market," said Liu. "We're actively seeking overseas companies to partner with."

In the last five years, roughly 300 small and medium-sized enterprises have taken advantage of government programs and network support every year, with many now exporting their own products, added Liu.

One of the best examples is Aiminer, which makes leather shoes. The firm used to handle outsourced production contracts for foreign brands, but after receiving government assistance it established its own brand and in 2009 reported an export volume of more than $30 million.

"Small businesses are very important," said Liu. "They create jobs for people and help the economy."

However, critics argue that overseas programs are not as effective as claimed, considering China has a different political system to developed countries.

Of the 8,000 or so officials who have attended the MPA program at NTU, not one has successfully adapted Singapore's administration system after returning to China, said Ho Khai Leong, an associate professor at its school of humanities and social sciences in an interview with The Time Weekly based in Guangzhou. For him, the system is only likely to serve as a reference.

Zhang Zhibin, assistant professor of public administration at NTU and director of its MPA program, admitted classes focus more on the skills to solve practical problems, such as in urban planning and environmental administration.

However, he added that what Chinese officials learn unconsciously during a year in Singapore will help them break through technical layers and look deeper into their own systems and culture.

Criticism of government spending on overseas training has also come from within China, with some netizens dubbing the programs "free vacations" paid for by taxpayers.

"(Job shadowing overseas) is a waste of human and financial power to a large extent," said Wu Pi, a professor at Peking University's school of government in an interview with People's Daily online.

He said that some officials don't make an effort during their study and damage the reputation of the Party. In the age of information, people can share training resources from overseas through various channels, including the Internet, he said.

Saving money

Such criticism has piled on the pressure on Chinese officials chosen for the programs. Yet, it has also inspired some to make the most of it.

Liu Tie, deputy director of Sichuan's legislative affairs office, worked as an assistant to the energy commissioner of the Georgia Public Service Commission.

He noticed that the state regulates the pricing of utilities through legislation for the benefit of consumers, while still providing an open market. Price adjustments also are held through public hearings, so the public learn and understand changes in policy, reducing the possibility of false cost.

After returning to Chengdu, the provincial capital, he shared his experience with his colleagues and, in 2007, his authority passed cost-monitoring regulations that audit public institutions and government-funded utilities, including schools and hospitals.

"After the ordinance went into effect, we noticed how much money we saved and how efficient public services and institutions became," said Liu Tie. "Savings in 2008 alone made the whole project worth it."

Last year, the Sichuan government audited 581 projects that reported 17.1 billion yuan of spending but in reality cost only 14.5 billion yuan. The ordinance helped cut an excess of 2.6 billion yuan.

"Although critics say government internships abroad are free vacations, the result of my trip is a story of struggle and endurance," added Liu Tie. "We have the results to show for it."


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