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Time to learn to really serve the people
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Asked why China has been able to develop its economy so fast, some people point to the country's dominant administrative power. This would mean that if a mayor wants to build new streets, no one can challenge him, and if he wants to do away with existing streets to create space for expensive housing projects, no one can ask him whether the developer or contractor has offered him anything in return.

Some officials have apparently believed that is pretty much the case: They give the orders and the others follow them.

But in fact, this crude form of administration-led development cannot go on for long. It is true that officials tend to bring more professionalism to their jobs if they have been selected on merit: academic records and work performances. But no matter how broad their background is, they will still have to be very careful while handling the ever-changing social issues. Otherwise they will commit mistakes and will probably learn some bitter lessons after which they are forced to mend their ways and reconcile with society through consultation.

Knocking down old buildings is more likely to cause public antagonism than building new ones, for new ones will generate more jobs and offer compensation for the surrounding community.

Imposition of new restrictions is more likely to arouse protests from the press and the Internet, just like offering new freedoms and conveniences will draw more praise. Such was the case of the Internet filtering software, Green Dam, which the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) tried to introduce recently.

MIIT officials might have thought that making all China-based computer makers install the filtering device in their products would be as easy as making them follow some new industrial standards. But for all their technical expertise, they have apparently failed to grasp the social significance of the scale of interference their decision would be in the affairs of the world's largest Internet population.

Perhaps few of them, having mostly graduated from engineering colleges, know how Lao Tzu, the philosopher who founded Taoism about 2,500 years ago, once warned the lords of his time: "Running a large country is like cooking small fish." Which means if the fish are stirred wrongly even once the dish would be spoiled.

This is why Minister of Industry and Information Technology Li Yizhong, who once served as the nation's top official to investigate industrial hazards and earned people's and the press' respect, deserves to be commended for stepping in to clean up the mess. He has said the filtering device will not be mandatory. Fair enough. For there are cyber cafe operators who would like to install them to save them from managerial trouble and parents who want their children protected from violent and pornographic sites.

In contrast, many other administrative offices are still following the style they developed when they were building new houses and opening new factories in the 1980s and 1990s while knocking down old houses and closing down loss-making factories.

Even worse, China's economy is no longer what it was and not many opportunities are around. That is why we have been hearing about so-called mass incidents almost every day - takeover of factories, killing of managers and even storming of local government offices.

We don't need further evidence to show that the once magical administration-led development model has reached its end. When it comes to protecting the people and their interests, it works more poorly than when it does while channeling investment and building new structures. This at times leads to danger.

There should be another development model with respect to human interests, social relations, democracy and closer consultation of officials with the people. These are areas where justice and efficiency are two sides of the same coin.

(China Daily August 18, 2009)

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