Premier Wen Jiabao vowed greater official accountability in his work report to the National People's Congress (NPC), but building a rational accountability system that tallies with the law will be a very difficult task, according to NPC deputies and experts.
The concept of accountability took shape in 2003, when the minister of health and mayor of Beijing were sacked for negligence in relation to the spread of SARS.
Later that year, Ma Fucai, president of the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, resigned after a gas well run by his company exploded and killed 243 people. The latest high-profile case occurred last month, when a vice-governor in the northeastern province of Liaoning was sacked over a local coal mine blast that killed 214, one of the worst mine disasters in years.
"But a mature accountability system is not simply about firing officials," said NPC deputy Yang Caishou.
"One thing that must be clarified is that the government is an entity of limited liability and should not be responsible for everything," added Yang, who is also mayor of Hechi, a city in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
He said in some cases citizens tend to turn to the government for things that are outside its responsibility, such as mediating disputes with employers. These cases may also damage officials' careers with their wide impact on society.
"To have a reasonable accountability system we first need to define the scope of the government's responsibility and hold officials accountable within this scope," said Yang.
In 2002 his city introduced accountability policies that use detailed criteria to evaluate local officials' performance in economic promotion and social administration.
Several city and county officials were removed from office for accidents, according to Yang.
"In many cases officials are held accountable because of major accidents that have very bad social repercussions, but many people don't know that few such cases are about a specific administrative activity that violates citizens' interests," said Mo Yuchuan, a law professor at Renmin University.
Every year, citizens file thousands of complaints, asking government departments to review certain administrative activities that affect their interests or even asking the courts to step in. In many cases these activities must be changed or revoked, said Mo.
"The law has very clear rules about right or wrong in tackling disputable administrative activities," he said. It takes time to put in place a system that evaluates officials' performance fairly and rationally.
But there will be some progress soon as a law will be enacted setting out clear standards of conduct for civil servants, Mo noted.
The NPC Standing Committee started reviewing a proposed Law on Civil Servants in December, which requires civil servants in leading positions to "take the blame and quit their posts" if their faults cause "major losses or severe social impact," or if they have executive responsibility for major accidents.
Punishable activities also include fraud, gambling and superstition.
(China Daily March 9, 2005)