China's NonCommunist Cadres

In the relative privacy of the minibus, Chen Zhu lets down his guard. "It's a shame," China's health minister almost whispers, glancing at his hands. Between stops on a whirlwind morale-boosting tour of Beijing's outlying health facilities, he's remembering the worst crisis since his appointment to the job in June 2007. "There was a warning," he says. When he heard of a strange epidemic of kidney stones among Chinese infants last September, his first thought was of the American dogs and cats that died after developing kidney stones from eating melamine-tainted pet food from China in 2007.

Those pet deaths should have alerted China's food-safety authorities to the risk that melamine, which gives falsely high protein readings, might resurface in other foods, Chen says. "I believe there was not much attention paid to that [North American] case—not enough," says Chen, whose ministry took over food safety in mid-2008. "Otherwise, if the management was a little bit tighter …" Instead, corrupt officials tried to cover up the baby-formula problem for months. Six infants died and 300,000 were sickened because the formula wasn't taken off the market fast enough. "We cannot say 'If, if'," Chen adds. "We have to face the reality here. But these are the lessons we've learned." The minibus pulls up at Chen's next stop, and he climbs out, smiling and shaking hands.

Evidence that these lessons have been taken to heart came this month, when China's Parliament passed a new food-safety law, ensuring that the issue is now overseen by a cabinet-level body and that Chen's Health Ministry leads a huge project aimed at improving Chinese standards. Beyond that, however, Chen's moment of introspection was remarkably revealing. Most apparatchiks are obsessed with projecting an air of determined competence, if not infallibility; mistakes are admitted only under duress.

But Chen, 55, is no bland bureaucrat. He's only the second Chinese minister not to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party in 36 years. The first, Science and Technology Minister Wan Gang, was appointed in April 2007. The two of them are leading members of a generation of Chinese officials just now coming into power—men (and a few women) who take a more sophisticated approach to governing. They're defined by a "growing professionalism, a greater emphasis on functional expertise, a greater emphasis on actual performance as opposed to who might be in your network … [and] a growing emphasis on pure competence," says Kenneth Jarrett, a former U.S. diplomat who served as Asia director on the National Security Council from 2000 to 2001. Non–party members are growing increasingly influential in China's public life. Though there are no reliable statistics, Chen says that there are now many of them at the provincial level. "When I go to the provinces, I meet many people of this kind," he says.

Many in this new generation of leaders were trained in the West and are heavily influenced by Western trends. Science and Technology Minister Wan got his doctorate at Germany's Clausthal Technical University in 1991 and later became a senior designer at Audi. He has since become the father of China's clean-energy R&D program, which involves both electric and hybrid vehicles. The mayor of the Chaoyang district in Beijing, Chen Gang (no relation), says he learned cutting-edge administrative techniques when he studied at Harvard and is now promoting greater transparency in dealing with citizens' complaints. The heads of some of China's most vital state-owned companies, including oil giant CNOOC, also studied abroad. Health Minister Chen studied at Paris's St-Louis Hospital. And his current job is of particular interest to the outside world, as he's responsible for day-to-day coordination on food safety, as well as tracking infectious diseases like bird flu.

Chen has a refreshingly rough-hewn air. He's wearing a suit this day while making his rounds, but his rumpled mien somehow makes him look less like a CEO than the farmhand he once was. The son of two Shanghai doctors, Chen was sent to a dirt-poor village in Jiangxi province as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. After realizing "my life in the countryside would be quite long," he says, he asked his parents to help him learn a few simple medical treatments. He performed his first operation on a woman with a stomach ulcer; the only anesthetic he had was a set of acupuncture needles, which he still considers a "simple but effective technology." He worked in the village as a "barefoot doctor" from 1970 to 1975. His reward came when a grateful local commune sent him to a district medical college, where he became a teacher.

That was only the start of his medical education. In 1984, Chen was sent to continue his studies in Paris. He reveled in the wide-open style of learning he found there, a stark contrast to the deferential attitude of Chinese students reared on Confucian respect for their elders. Young medics at St-Louis tried to catch out their famous teachers with tough diagnostic puzzles. "Very grand professors," Chen recalls, "they laugh—they were so happy the interns are so smart." He cracks up at the memory. "I was so fortunate," he says of his time abroad.

The number of other professionals sent abroad began to increase in the 1980s, creating a layer of technocrats now in their 40s and 50s and hitting their professional peak. Many of these students returned home with a newfound sense of confidence and independent thought. Zhong Nanshan, the Edinburgh-trained lung specialist who first identified SARS in 2003, recently told the British medical journal The Lancet what his Scottish training taught him: "Never believe what the authorities say is correct. Only believe what you yourself have observed."

Home again in China, Chen made his mark, first as director of a Shanghai hematology lab (his global reputation as a blood scientist has earned him membership in the U.S. and French academies of science) and then as head of the National Human Genome Center, where he impressed visiting leaders. As health minister, he has won high praise from colleagues around the world. "He's a wonderful amalgamation of East and West," says Dr. Murray Lumpkin, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deputy commissioner for international and special programs. "He's quite a sincere and down-to-earth guy," says Cris Tunon, head of the World Health Organization's program for food safety in China. "I have no hesitation about his serious interest in public health." Overseas experts particularly like the way Chen pursued the tainted-baby-formula case. "His actions have given us a great sense of hope and a great sense of confidence," says Lumpkin. The FDA has opened a Beijing office and is training China's food producers in U.S. safety laws.

After a year and a half on the job, Chen is beginning to reshape his ministry. It has taken bold steps like inviting public comment on proposed reforms—"not a thing that normally happens," says Sarah Barber, a WHO officer who works on Chinese health policy. One of Chen's pet plans is now to install independent experts on hospital boards. "We must cut [out] the management from the oversight," he says. "Institutions can't be expected to monitor themselves objectively." Adding directors from outside will probably bring more non-party people into public life, but Chen says the communist establishment has already embraced that idea. "Non-party people are considered a very important political strength," he says. Of course, the Chinese Communist Party isn't about to embrace real pluralism, let alone multiparty democracy. But it does want to make sure it hears from China's best talent. With the country facing a massive slowdown in exports and declining growth, Beijing's leaders can't be sticklers for ideological purity. They, too, are facing reality.