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Propaganda Bites Official
Summary:Wuhan, the largest city in the central Chinese province of Hubei, has a reputation for being one of China's three "furnace" cities, but on this occasion the heat was on the government officials as they were about to appear on a program where they'd be grilled by the host and a live audience made up of residents.

By Cheng Jiulong (程九龙)
Issue 571, July 9, 2012
News, cover
Translated by Tang Xiangyang
Original article:

It was a scorching hot day in July when the heads of six suburban districts of Wuhan arrived at the city's government-owned TV station.

Wuhan, the largest city in the central Chinese province of Hubei, has a reputation for being one of China's three "furnace" cities, but on this occasion the heat was on the government officials as they were about to appear on a program where they'd be grilled by the host and a live audience made up of residents.

The officials also knew that they would be expected to respond on the spot to videos exposing various faults with government services or other shortcomings that had been shot undercover in their districts.

Ahead of the broadcast, all six officials were very nervous, unsure of what issues would be raised. During a rehearsal of their entry on to the stage held some two hours before the program went to air, some of them couldn't even speak clearly.

"This is the first time that six district heads have appeared on the same program in Wuhan," one of the producers told the EO.

According to ratings data from Wuhan TV, the program already attracts three times more viewers than soap operas broadcast during prime time.

The program is a joint production of Wuhan TV station (武汉广播电视总台) and an office under the city government that's responsible for finding solutions to every day problems (治庸问责办公室). The show is broadcast live and this season it's aimed at "Resolving Wuhan's Ten Most Pressing Issues."

During last year's season, members from the city's Communist Party Standing Committee and deputy mayors also appeared on the show.

The program has aroused heated public debate in Wuhan and around the nation. The EO has learned from the local Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CPC that they're planning to make the program a regular feature that will allow ordinary people to track the performance of government.

"The TV program is just one thing," said Che Yangao (车延高), member of the local Standing Committee of the CPC and secretary of the local Commission for Discipline Inspection. "From this one point we want to make a larger impact."

Embarrassed Officials

The fifth episode of the series, which is known as diànshì wèn zhèng (电视问政) in Chinese, was devoted to the theme "Development Should Benefit the Public." After a short self-introduction, all six district chiefs watched as an undercover investigation was broadcast.

It was about a local industrial park that mostly sat idle and unused. The construction of a planned road connecting to the park had progressed at a very slow pace, while the construction of neighboring projects outside the park had stopped completely. The government claimed that over ten companies would be part of the park, but in fact, only three had started production.

Wu Zuyun (吴祖云) was the official responsible for that district. Wu attempted to explain some of the problems that had affected the project, but then admitted that the supporting infrastructure for the industrial park hadn't been fully completed.

"Please trust me," he said apologetically. "Give me some time and I will make everything alright."

Huang Hongyun (黄红云), a professor with the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who was the guest commentator for the evening noted that, "I wouldn't sleep well tonight if I were one of the district heads."

"If the next industrial park is to be treated in the same way, Wuhan's goal to promote its industries will never be reached," she continued. "Instead there will be lots of half-completed industrial parks."

As the program went to a commercial break, one of the district heads was seen furiously mopping his sweating brow.

However, that criticism was quite light when compared to that unleashed in an earlier episode of the program. During the fourth episode of the series, Gao Danyan (高丹彦), director of the city's Industry and Commerce Bureau, had to respond to a video exposing officials indirectly asking for bribes from business people who were trying to complete a routine change to their registration information.

"This was not in line with the 'clean government rules,'" an obviously embarrased Gao said.

"As soon as the Industry and Commerce Bureau receives any tips, we will investigate and monitor the cases. Those officials (who were asking for bribes) will be severely punished."

Aside from sharp criticism, there were also heated debates.

During the first episode of the show, a member of the public raised the issue of monitoring vehicle emissions and noted how complaints often seemed to fall between the cracks that separated the various government agencies responsible - the local Environmental Protection Bureau, the Public Transportation Bureau and the Public Security Bureau.

An official from the local Environmental Protection Bureau who appeared on the show rather defensively noted that "We don't have the right to stop any cars."

Another high-level government official named Huang Songru (黄松如) responded, "The Environmental Protection Bureau should be the first to be blamed. But other related bureaus should also be held responsible."

No Need to Hold Back

The program has been formally approved by the local government. The local CPC committee even released a notice requiring all the heads of government bureaus to participate. Anybody who isn't available for the program has to gain approval from the local CPC committee and the government.

"We only select those problems which should be solved, can be solved and are left unresolved," said Song Zhixiong (宋志雄), one of the program's producers. "We aren't aiming to produce debates; we want to be reasonable and constructive. We supervise government so it can do a better job."

The Wuhan TV Station has complete freedom in choosing the specific questions for the program while the party and government only set the general outline of which topics should be discussed, the EO learned from the local CPC discipline committee. And those topics are kept secret before the program goes to air.

Some officials have complained that the questions asked of them are too pointed.

In response, Ruan Chengfa (阮成发), the party secretary of the local CPC committee, went to the studio to encourage those working on the show, "Don't be hesitant to ask sharp questions," he said, "You can be even sharper!"

How Long Can it Last

The TV program is a reflection of the local government and party's determination to improve the image of both the city and the government.

As a big city in central China, Wuhan has long been derided for being for being "dirty, messy and poor" and some jokingly refer to it as "China's largest county-level city". As with many other cities in the Chinese hinterlands, many of those employed in Wuhan's administration are lazy and inefficient and this has a huge impact on the investment environment in the city.

The Wuhan government has included officials' performance on the TV program into their "working performance evaluation."

Aside from broadcasting this TV program, the secretary of the local Commission for Discipline Inspection said the party will also help establish other mechanisms to help people monitor the government, including encourage the media to engage in undercover reporting.

"Next, we're thinking about expanding the scope of officials participating in the program," said Che Yangao, "Not only the powerful decision makers, but also those grass-root officials, so that 'questioning politicians' becomes the norm.


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