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Kunming City

Progress through Shock Therapy


Progress through Shock Therapy


The people of Kunming both adore and abhor their municipal party secretary Qiu He. Governing with an iron fist, he has pushed the city onto the fast track of competitiveness, hoping to transform it from backwater to strategic hub.



Progress through Shock Therapy

By Hsien-Shen Wen
CommonWealth Magazine

Wherever he goes, Qiu He set off a firestorm of reform.

Qiu He detests the bureaucratic mindset, but he also hates poverty and backwardness. The Chinese Communist Party's municipal party secretary for Kunming City, in China's southwestern province of Yunnan, Qiu He is well known for his relentless berating of public officials and even his blunt criticisms of the shortcomings of the general public. When both public officials and ordinary citizens speak of him, it is always with a mixture of respect and fear, love and hate.

Qiu loves to read, and underneath his hulking exterior lurks a meticulous, well-reasoned mind. Among currently serving public officials, he is perhaps the sole local leader who has inspired someone to write his biography. And it's a bestseller to boot.

"Kunming has undergone monumental change since the arrival of Secretary Qiu," says Tian Bing, director of the Kunming Economic and Technological Development District Policy Research Office, basing his depiction of Qiu and his new administration on personal experience.

In 2008, not long after taking up his new post, Qiu sent down a directive through the ranks of the development zone's management commission: those wishing to keep their jobs in the government would have to register with the city government and be assigned to new posts. With the exception of the director and deputy director, all management commission employees would henceforth be stripped of their official governmental status and work on an annual contract basis; those turning in sub-par performances would not have their contracts renewed. Individuals from the private sector could be hired for positions on the commission based on their abilities and qualifications, all the way up to the position of bureau chief; meeting the criteria to serve as a public official would no longer be required for employment on the commission.

Major Business Recruitment, Major Development

To promote efficiency within the development district, Qiu ordered decentralization of authorization responsibilities; the authority of city government departments tasked with administrative review and authorization, from environmental assessments and plant authorizations to land zoning issues, would henceforth be handed down to the development district commission as needed to facilitate the commission's opening of fast-track approval for investment projects.

As Qiu exhorted officials: "Bringing in commercial investment is paramount, the top administrative priority. Without major business recruitment there can be no major development."

Various government departments were ordered to reallocate personnel for the establishment of 41 business recruitment branch offices to be located in major cities across the nation to court commercial investment. Each department was tasked with a mandatory investment quota to fulfill. Tian Bing's policy research office was responsible for bringing in 60 million renminbi in commercial investment annually.

A large number of officials were relocated to coastal cities to court commercial investment with no respite from the duties of their original work unit. Nearly all Kunming City Government departments began to feel the heat of an increasingly heavy and pressure-packed workload.

Transportation infrastructure is the key to economic development. No sooner had Qiu taken office in 2007 than he set about improving Kunming's ramshackle transportation network. Not content to merely resurface two or three existing roads, Qiu embarked on a transformative elevated freeway construction project comprising four concentric ring roads around the city fed by 17 roads originating in the city center and rolling outwards in all directions, which would ultimately result in "four rims and 17 spokes."

Qiu believes investment capital and human talent are like water – in the competition among China's cities, whichever locales provide the most favorable environment will soon see capital and talent flow in. The sooner Kunming was able to improve its environment, the sooner the city would be able to gain the upper hand.

Many of Kunming's denizens feel that no city is capable of carrying out so many construction projects simultaneously, describing the program as "shock therapy." Qiu has called upon city residents to be patient as he seeks in one year to complete construction projects that would ordinarily take two years to finish, doing everything in his power to make the city's transportation dark age as brief as possible.

He Who Soils the Kunming Brand Loses His Job

Construction on most projects is underway 24 hours a day. Among them, the 27-km Second Ring Road, primarily composed of six sections of elevated highway, was nigh on miraculously completed within a year. Kunming's traffic congestion problems were significantly alleviated virtually overnight. With the affirmation of "Qiu He Speed" has come even greater confidence in the plausibility of completing the "Four Rims and 17 Spokes" highway network and the city's new international airport hub project by next year.

In addition to building roads and repairing bridges, Qiu held a large-scale rally at which he offered a detailed explanation of how the city's reforms must emphasize the "competitiveness of a soft environment." In an effort to improve the service quality of public officials in that soft environment, the Kunming Daily two years ago published a four-page spread listing the telephone numbers of the directors of all of the various city government departments. Following up, CommonWealth Magazine reporters tested the listings and in most cases were able to contact the individuals listed. In some cases the numbers listed rolled over directly to the officials' personal cell phones.

To put the government's commitment into action, in 2008 Kunming drew up accountability measures for leading cadres to root out those officials who were ineffectual, irresponsible or otherwise failed to live up to work standards, trumpeting the slogans, "Those who can't do a good job should not wield power," and, "He who soils the Kunming brand loses his job."

Rigorous monitoring and assessment efforts have produced noticeable results in the "greening" of urban Kunming. In 2007, Kunming applied with the central government for permission to use the moniker "The Garden City." It was rebuffed. When Qiu took office he set benchmarks for the planting of trees, demanding that roadsides, vacant land and building demolition sites be landscaped, as well as replacing officials who had failed in their duties in these areas. Just two years later nearly everywhere one looked in Kunming trees had been planted, 3.5 million of them, and this year the city was finally awarded the right to use the title "Garden City."

The True Test: Lake Dian

Qiu's true test in improving Kunming's ecology lies in Lake Dian. The lake, lying south and west of the city, has long suffered pollution woes, and a powerful stench now emanates from its waters, with fish and shellfish populations devastated and tourists no longer coming to visit.

Qiu has drawn upon his previous experience managing Lake Tai (on the border of the Jiangsu and Zhejiang) to proffer a five-step policy for managing Lake Dian: "To see to the lake, one must first see to the waters. To see to the waters, one must first see to the rivers. To see to the rivers, one must first see to the pollutants. To see to the pollutants, one must first see to the people. To see to the people, one must first see to the officials."

Thirty-five rivers feed Lake Dian, and the party secretary, the mayor, the deputy mayor and various municipal bureau chiefs have each adopted one river as their responsibility to manage. They must pinpoint the sources of pollutants in their respective rivers, and make immediate improvements to any problems they discover.

Highly polluting industrial plants along the river banks have been shuttered, population densities along the lakeshore reduced, the efficiency of sewage treatment plants has been improved and storm sewerage systems implemented to separate runoff from raw sewage. Raw sewage that once ran directly into the lake is now diverted to treatment plants. Lands along the lakeshore and riverbanks have been turned into wetlands that naturally scrub organic pollutants from the runoff.

Additionally, according to Lake Dian Management Bureau chief Li Kunmin, 7 billion renminbi will be spent on the construction of a reservoir within 100 kilometers of the lake. Each year, 50,000 cubic meters of water will be pumped from the new reservoir into the lake, replacing the old lake water over a period of 12 years. Within the next five to ten years, the water quality and ecology of Lake Dian should show considerable improvement.

If the effort to control pollution in Lake Dian – a task described by Premier Wen Jiabao as "difficult" – shows a marked turnaround, perhaps other interior lakes throughout China can glean new hope from the Lake Dian experience.

As the free trade bloc of the 10 members states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus China gradually takes shape, there has been a subtle shift on the thinking about Yunnan Province and Kunming among top Beijing officials.

During a visit to Yunnan in July of last year, China's president Hu Jintao for the first time remarked on the need to "Fully utilize Yunnan's advantages as China's overland gateway to Southeast Asia and South Asia … continually improving the quality and standards of the border regions to make Yunnan China's primary bridgehead in the opening to the southwest."

"Hu Jintao's comments clarify the bearings of Yunnan's developmental course," says Wang Qingmei, director of the ASEAN Liaison Office of the Yunnan Provincial Department of Commerce.

In accordance with Hu's "bridgehead" directive, a 160-strong group of national development officials, other ministerial officials and private business representatives conducted a fact-finding tour of Yunnan the week of July 13-20, studying proposals for how to promote the bridgehead policy.

Among issues receiving the greatest scrutiny was whether Yunnan's provincial capital of Kunming could be used as a platform for the construction of a major transport artery toward the southwest, directly linking up with South Asia and Southeast Asia.

If this idea can be realized, future transport from Yunnan through Burma to the Indian Ocean would shave 5,000 kilometers off the current route from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca. Furthermore, Yunnan would then find itself as the locus of a new economic zone comprising China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Yunnan's geographical status would then rise from its historical place as a frontier outpost to a commercial hub.

"With its great urban vitality, Kunming would then become the bridgehead to the bridgehead," Wang Qingmei says.

If Kunming is to become that "bridgehead to the bridgehead," its obstacles will be great and its challenges many.

During CommonWealth Magazine's visit to Kunming, doubts regarding Qiu He's new policy aims were actually rather pointed. For example, critics questioned Qiu's desire to devote the full resources of the city to transport infrastructure construction. Internal estimates have placed the required investment cost as high as 500 billion renminbi by 2020 – from where will the funding come? When discussing policy objectives Qiu always emphasizes the interests of the people, but he continually engages in policies involving demolition of structures and relocation of residents – how much does he really care about the people? At the end of the day, Qiu is a wildcard among China's officialdom, stirring controversy and making numerous enemies. Just how long can his kind of reform banner be expected to fly?

Indeed, Secretary Qiu himself may not necessarily have the answers to all these questions.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy