Chinese officials are known for often spouting platitudes and familiar boilerplate, but sometimes they are every bit as lively and gaffe-prone as their better-publicized foreign counterparts.
When a group of home owners in Langzhong City, Sichuan Province, asked local authorities in an online exchange why their houses were on land leased for 40 years, instead of the usual 70 years for residential property, land officials replied curtly, “If we think 40 years from now, whether we will be around is a question. We cannot think that long term.”
This reply actually was posted on the website of the land and resources bureau in March 2011, but at that time it didn’t cause a furor, until it was recently spotted by reporters browsing the website.
Then it made news.
Due to bad publicity, the bureau was compelled to apologize on August 11 for this remark, more than two years after it was made. A belated apology, but still quite encouraging.
Encouraging in that it is a sign that Chinese people’s awareness of their own right to fair treatment is awakened.
They will neither forget nor forgive the insults hurled at them by their supposed public servants.
Shen hui fu
The officials in Langzhong are not alone in crafting so-called shen hui fu, mind-boggling replies that often are blatantly out of touch with reality, and provocative.
For instance, in February, a bureau overseeing real estate development in Loudi City, Hunan Province, announced that the Spring Festival holiday would be 10 days, rather than the seven days stipulated by the State Council.
Pressed for comment, a clerk simply retorted, “The State Council? How far away it is (to dictate local practice)!”
In January 2012, a family planning commission in Suqian City, Jiangsu Province, was revealed to have doled out year-end bonus packages to employees in violation of proper procedures.
Knowing that the whistle blower came from within, the director thundered in an internal meeting, “I fed you meat, you bit my finger. Don’t you know you hurt our feelings?” in an apparent comparison of the whistle blower to a dog.
The list of such official faux pas and slights and snubs of citizens goes on and on. Thanks to the Internet, it’s more likely they will be exposed and the offenders will be disgraced as a result.
The hubris of some officials is a significant reason for their gaffes.
Among the most notorious are arrogant statements such as this one made during a police stop: “I’m a bureau-level leader, who dares to search my car?” And in another instance by another official, “What do we need the police for if they don’t beat people?”
The naked menace of these gaffes speaks volumes about how many bureaucrats perceive themselves to be superior to the rank-and-file.
But condescension isn’t all that leads some cadres to lord it over their perceived social inferiors, namely, the masses.
Some are just too ignorant to engage in relevant, civilized discussion.
For instance, Xinhua reported on Monday that once a local official asked a wildlife expert if the Yangtze River dolphins, an endangered species, taste delicious. When the reply was ‘no,’ he wondered aloud, “If not, why bother to protect it?”
No doubt, many of our supposedly wiser cadres are very poor public speakers.
In contrast to many of their Western peers, who have to be articulate enough to regularly give talks, respond to constituents and occasionally debate in public to get a job, they are not chosen primarily for their eloquence.
Zhang Yiwu, a Peking University professor, argued that Chinese officials desperately need to brush up on their public communications skills. Which is true.
There has been a suggestion that officials go through role plays with hired actors playing needy citizens seeking their help in order to gauge their wits and affability before they are appointed for higher office.
Whoever the genius is behind the suggestion, he or she must have forgotten that China’s politics are full of precedents of such “mock tests” manipulated to make officials look good.
And what is the point of adopting some suggestion that risks becoming another formality?
While some cadres have been held to account for their improper remarks, leading to a few sackings and disciplinary measures, the tide of gaffe-prone officials seems unending.
Every now and then, there’s another director of this or that bureau, despite his or her low rank, patronizingly lecturing a hapless citizen about the dangers of messing with him, or her.
Level the playing field
In an Internet age, which author Thomas Friedman asserts has leveled the playing field, the usual hierarchy of officials as masters and citizens as subjects is being undermined.
While their positions cannot be exchanged overnight, at least there is effective pressure on some self-righteous alpha male (they are usually male) leaders to watch their mouths and reflect on their career-threatening insults before hastily hurling them?
Aware of the danger of official pretentiousness, ostentation and arrogance, the Party these days is urging its members to follow the example of revolutionary elders in going into the crowds, to mend their ties with a people from which some elements have long been estranged.
The call, which now has developed into a movement, is heeded by many, but still, there are those who continue to affront citizens, thinking they can get away with it.
With the Internet as a reliable witness to anything that is said and done online and offline, they need to be taught that these illusions are potential career killers.
They may be overlooked for two years or even longer, but past speech and bad behavior will ultimately be exhumed, examined and, it is hoped, punished.