A Rogue Bureaucrat Tests How Fast China Can Reform

This week China opens its annual National People's Congress in Beijing, where delegates from across the country will chat about policy and network behind closed doors. At the end, they'll project an image of party unity for the public, with the standard paeans to fighting corruption and growing the economy. But just how eager are they to realize those goals? Kunming provincial Party Secretary Qiu He, a middle-management bureaucrat famous for his bulldozing authoritarianism, is testing the party's commitment to reform by taking extreme measures to achieve it. And in a nation that occasionally professes to want (gradual) democratization, Qiu is a lightning rod in the debate over whether dictatorial methods can build democratic institutions. He probably won't be the subject of this week's internal debates, but his program raises the questions: Can rule by iron fist lead to rule of law? And just how far will reform be allowed to go?

Qiu is not what party message-makers might consider a poster boy. Often referred to in the Chinese press as the nation's most controversial party secretary, he stole local headlines in November 2009 for tearing down billboards, temporarily banning outdoor advertising, and ordering the destruction of any building standing in the way of his urban-beautification plan. Thousands of surveillance cameras have been installed throughout Kunming, and he decreed that bars must be removed from thousands of people's windows because the government views them as an eyesore. His critics, who are many, say that he lacks any regard for human rights or the rule of law. "Some people think he's too extreme," said an educated Kunming resident who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of talking domestic politics to foreign media. "To beautify the city, he's removed a lot of people selling goods on the street, so things have become more expensive."

But at the same time, even in a country where most politicians seem desperate to project an image of stability, he has gotten real results. Kunming was one of China's most backward provincial capitals; it now benefits from better traffic infrastructure and more income. Qiu set up 35 "attract investment" bureaus in coastal areas and fired seven officials who didn't attract enough outside investment. The government attracted $10.3 billion in business investments in Kunming in 2009, a 33 percent rise over 2008, while taxes from overseas companies with local assets increased from $186 million in 2005 to $464 million in 2008. "Reform is about taking risks and even paying a great price," he said in the book How China's Leaders Think, in his only interview with a Westerner. (Qiu declined to comment for this story.)

Qiu began his municipal political career in the city of Suqian, one of the most backward cities in the coastal province of Jiangsu. Upon taking office, he ordered local officials to donate 10 percent of their salary, and peasants eight days of labor a year, to support road construction and other projects. To raise money, he ordered a full third of local officials to attract investment for the local government (probably by offering tax incentives, though the mechanics are unclear), saying that he'd fire the head of each department that didn't meet his fundraising target. He even privatized the schools and hospitals to help them run more efficiently—a minor heresy in state-run China.

Yet from 2000 to 2004, during his tenure as mayor and party secretary, the percentage of students entering high school rose from 48 to 80 percent, the highest rate for cities in the northern part of the province, and its GDP almost doubled from 2000 to 2005. Suqian remains poor—it simply does not have a large, wealthy tax base—but Qiu was credited with beautifying the city, improving its infrastructure, speeding up the growth of its economy, and fighting corruption. It helped, of course, that he had a strong relationship with his boss at the time, a provincial bigwig who now runs China's powerful Organization Department and is a close ally of President Hu Jintao. According to Joseph Fewsmith, a Boston University scholar of Chinese politics, it's not clear whether Qiu's hard-charging approach forged those ties, or whether those ties enabled his hard-charging approach. But in any case, says Fewsmith, pols in China can't be that controversial without high-level backing.

And so, in that way, Qiu got noticed. While China's bureaucracy is seen as intensely conservative, it's also very competitive. That's why midranking officials, when they have high-level support, occasionally implement aggressive and unconventional remedies for economic growth and social stability. Sometimes intense reforms—like the transformation of Changzhi city in Shanxi province, under the stewardship of local Party Secretary Lu Rizhao—have not led to stellar careers. But Qiu's gambit in Suqian paid off: he got a promotion to vice governor of the province, had a book written about him, and received an official award as one of the 60 "honored people of reform" over the past 60 years.

Next was the post in Kunming, beginning in December 2007. When he arrived, Qiu caused an uproar by publishing the name, job responsibility, and office phone number of every Kunming official in the local paper—including his own. He once fired an official for sleeping at a meeting, and has ordered all of Kunming's civil servants under the age of 50 to master at least 100 sentences in Vietnamese, Lao, Burmese, and Thai by the end of 2010. "If we don't effect tough measures, more often than not, things don't get done. I think that's why I strike people as a 'tough, strong man,' " said Qiu in How China's Leaders Think.

The response in town is divided. Some residents and legal experts contend that Qiu's behavior won't encourage the organic development of essential civic institutions—courts, police departments, investment bureaus—because Kunming relies on the rule of Qiu, rather than the rule of law. For example, he decreed that 3 million trees be planted in the city, and up they went. "It's a good idea," said the Kunming resident, "but some people planting them didn't know where to plant them, and now in some smaller places it's difficult to walk."

Others are more circumspect. Chris Horton, a Kunming-based consultant who has lived in the city for six years, described how Kunming's previous government didn't adjust the streets during China's initial car boom 10 years ago. Traffic was so bad that it scared away investment and became a serious social issue. "Someone like Qiu He has to come in and throw things into chaos for half a year," says Horton. It's a pain, but, he admitted, traffic was greatly improved afterward. "He's someone who's definitely able to do things," says one Kunming resident who works in an educational business. "Many Chinese leaders, the more they do, the more mistakes they can make, so they end up doing less. I hope we have more people like him in the future."

"There are people who argue that there needed to be a strongman to take on the forces that held Suqian back," says Fewsmith. Qiu has managed to foster economic growth and fight corruption—two of the party's mandates. "But other people said China needs to develop rule of law." For now, the tension inside the party about which is more important—progress or the rule of law—gives radicals like Qiu a little room to operate. And this week's party conference won't change that (these events rarely show more than a glimmer of dissent). But as the country modernizes and comes to expect more normalized behavior from its officials, there will be fewer and fewer Qius willing to test just how far they can go.