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Grassroots 'Supermen' officials rise to the earthquake challenge
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In China's political hierarchy, "petty officer" is a common name for a grassroots official.

When the devastating quake killing nearly 70,000 Chinese people occurred last May, these petty officers were thrown into the front lines of a complicated battle, rushing to satisfy diverse public appeals and juggling economic recovery with social stability.

A few, unable to bear the stress of acting Superman after losses to their own families, took their lives. Most of them managed to move ahead, with stronger knowledge of the challenges facing their posts at or below township level.

"The May 12 earthquake has completely changed our working situation," said Yang Yong who was tapped for the secretary of Qingxi Town Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in January 2007 in what would be the devastated Qingchuan County.

With 28 dead and 339 injured, the small town of 15,000 people suffered 590 million yuan (US$86.4 million) in direct economic losses from the worst earthquake in China in half a century. That's 295 times as much as its 2007 fiscal revenue and six times as much as its 2007 GDP.

As the rebuilding costs come close to the aggregate investment the town has made since the founding of New China in 1949, Yang said he and his staff felt stressed almost every day.

A Chinese town authority runs a broad range of affairs, including city planning, finance, environmental protection, sanitation, medical care, public order, education, governmental relief and public utilities.

Serve the people

For ages, deeply rooted in Chinese minds was a governance philosophy proposed by thinker Mencius, an advocate of Confucianism, more than 2,000 years ago: those who use their minds rule; those who use their muscles are ruled.

In the quake zone, however, many petty officers like Yang are stretching themselves sometimes beyond their physical and mental limits, in part because of duty, in part because of the rewards and punishments meted out by higher authorities.

To ferret out corrupt officials, the Sichuan Provincial Communist Party Committee's Commission for Discipline Inspection opened a telephone hotline two days after the earthquake to take public complaints.

Two weeks later, six officers were removed from their posts for failing to perform their duty.

A typical case is Kang Dong, head of a neighborhood committee in the Yuying New Village of Mianyang City, who was widely criticized for not doing his best to relocate disabled and low-income residents.

In the following two months, official statistics show, 28 local officers were punished for failing to fulfill their duty while another 213 were promoted for their outstanding performances.

New awareness

Village head Liu Changjiang was allowed to jump several ranks to take up the post of deputy chief of Hanwang Township in Mianzhu because he had walked hundreds of miles on foot - this to take out the first message on the severe situation in the then-isolated town, regardless of the safety of his own family.

"We are also quake victims and share the people's woes and pains. But rapidly evolving grass-root democracy has made the public fully aware that they are justified in complaining whenever their needs are not well taken care of. Our motivation and the pressure to serve the people are both enormous," Yang said.

He said disputes might rise from anywhere - the allocation of stipends and relief materials, land requisition and evaluation of housing damages.

In Wenxian, the worst-hit county in Gansu Province, working 24 hours a day, seven days a week has turned county chief Zhang Hong into a chain smoker. "I used to smoke one pack of cigarettes a day. Now I need three packs. There is no regular life."

Jiang Mingzhong, deputy mayor of Shifang in Sichuan, said many problems exposed by the earthquake were "chronic," for instance, insufficient local finance that had bottle-necked investment in people's livelihoods. "Complex as it is, quake zone governance also gives us a chance to examine what we missed in the past and to make our best efforts to bring the people a brighter future," he said.

(The authors are writers at Xinhua news agency.)

(Shanghai Daily May 13, 2009)

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