A new phenomena seems to be sweeping China's leadership in recent months; official, heartfelt public apologies for failures to curb problems under their jurisdiction.
The trend started with Governor Yu Youjun, of the coal-rich province of Shanxi. He astonished the annual provincial parliamentary session by apologizing for the fatal coal mine accidents that have plagued the province for years.
"As the leader of the provincial government, I shall take responsibility for the failure and I feel restless to a great extent," said a sincere Yu, who received loud applause from the session delegates.
The apology was especially surprising considering the province had reduced the number of coal mine deaths to 85 per 100 million tons of coal mined from 98 in 2005 and 185 in 2000. A total of 476 people died in 149 fatal coal mine accidents in the province last year.
While the pressure of not being able to save more lives obviously weighs on the governor, his apology spurred numerous others to come forward.
Within months of Yu's statement, a vice premier, an education minister, the state environmental chief, vice mayor of Sanya all came forward with confessions of failure and promises to do better.
The latest very public apology comes from two local police chiefs in northwestern Xinjiang. In front of television cameras and journalist the chiefs bowed and asked for forgiveness from a man who had been wrongly convicted of murder, apparently because police forced him to confess.
It's remarkable progress in China's politics to see leaders actually say they're sorry. For thousands of years, government officials have been as infallible as parents of young children. Confucius taught that the authority of parents could never be challenged and even today Chinese officials are sometimes called fumu guan or 'parent officials'.
The change in attitude brings to mind two important questions. Why the sudden change and what comes after an apology?
Some officials seem to be trying to head off greater trouble by seeking forgiveness from the public. They seem to feel if they look solemn enough and say sorry with enough conviction perhaps they'll be forgiven when they should be punished. A few of the apologizing politicians have even been accused of crying crocodile tears as their repentance has been see as unauthentic by the public. The apologize fad is doing a disservice to officials like the obviously distraught Governor Yu.
The trend is on the rise because there's more transparency and greater public scrutiny of the workings of government. This is what is making some officials fess up. They know they can't get away with mismanaging and abusing the public trust.
Politicians who make mistakes should step up and take responsibility. They will see that the public has a great capacity for forgiveness. They should also know, however, that saying sorry is no replacement for being held truly accountable.
(Xinhua News Agency April 7, 2007)