Behind closed doors

By Liu Dong Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-18 18:35:03


"Students" role play as officials from government departments taking questions from "journalists" at a mock press conference. Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT

In a class in Shanghai recently students were discussing the problem of street vendors. The class was divided into four sections, each role playing as government officials, chengguan (city management enforcement officers), street vendors and citizens. 

The debate began with a "citizen" outlining the problem. "Street vendors - we love them and hate them. The Shanghai Evening News reported that from 2005 to 2011, the government hotline had received 169,000 complaints about street vendors over health concerns or that they were interfering with ordinary people going about their daily lives in some way - this was the No. 1 complaint. But we do all like to buy stuff from them because it is cheap and good."

Then a student acting as a street vendor said: "I came to Shanghai to sell vegetables every morning because I have to feed my family and treat my sick son."

Another student acting as a chengguan put his side: "Really we are treated unjustly. On one side we are told to do our duty as authorized by the government. On the other side are the vendors who rely on their work to make a living and the public's natural sympathy with an underdog. It has been reported that more than 4,000 chengguan died or have been injured in this work over the past 30 years. It is hard to imagine any other government department with this sort of record."

A worldwide problem

Other students on the government officials side said that street vendors were a worldwide problem. Many countries in the West had had forms of chengguan for more than 100 years and these problems in China could be solved by learning how other countries dealt with them.

One student in the class provoked laughter and applause when he suggested the chengguan should be abolished, the street vendors should take over their former offices and the chengguan could then act as their security guards.

Another student asked why the street vendors in New York and Hong Kong were considered a vital part of the city culture and how could we achieve that in China?

Associate professor Dong Youhong, who was conducting this lesson, said the debate was intended to get the students to approach problems from different aspects. He spoke about the four values considered important in US public policy debates: personal liberty, balancing different interests within the community, different communities and social development.

But Dong's students were not ordinary students. They were intermediate officials from government departments and they were attending a five-week course (September 3 - October 11) at the Shanghai Administration Institute, the 69th class for senior officials of the Shanghai municipal government. The institute gave the Global Times a rare opportunity to look behind the closed doors of some of the sessions.

In 1986 the Communist Party of China (CPC) Shanghai Municipal Committee and the Shanghai municipal government authorized the establishment of the Shanghai Administrative Cadres Institute, which was later renamed the Shanghai Administration Institute in 1989. Its main responsibility is to educate middle-ranking and senior civil servants.

Government cadres have to undergo three months' further education at the institute every five years. The courses include training for newly-appointed officials, and specialty courses as well as regular in-house training sessions. 

Most important

Over the past five years, the institute has trained 60,000 students and more than 4,000 of these were bureau chief level officials. The figures alone show that the institute has become the most important cadre training center for the city government.

Most students in the 69th class came from department director level positions. The average age of the 55 students was 40 and the youngest was 33.

The five-week course covered four main topics essentially: theory and practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics; the construction of service-oriented government; leadership training and public servant consciousness and ethic codes. These topics correspond with the institute's core training mission, which involves teaching theory, knowledge, ability and the cultivation of the Party spirit.

One of the students at the institute for the course was Zhang Weimin, the deputy head of the Putuo District Food and Drug Administration Bureau. He had been looking forward to the five-week course and found himself appointed class monitor. "I can't figure out why they chose me. I haven't been picked as a class leader since I left primary school," he laughed.

Before he arrived at the institute he had no idea what the course would involve. There was also an element of uncertainty for the young class teacher Luo Junli although it's her third time teaching courses at the institute. Luo said she was still nervous running classes for officials who were much older and more experienced than she was.   

But after a few classes, everyone, teachers and students, were agreeably surprised at the different approach. Zhang had not expected the modern teaching methods that featured as practical simulations and debates, and the fact that the lessons were practical and relevant to his day-to-day work. Teacher Luo found her students were all quick thinkers and responded readily to questions.

Buns and battles

In one lesson the class discussed law enforcement in Shanghai, covering actual cases involving contaminated steamed buns, the entrapment of phony taxi drivers and chengguan assaulting vendors. The students had to share their own experiences and problems in each regard and a bureau chief level official listened and commented on the various approaches.

One of the institute's teachers, Cai Aiping, explained that there was some hesitancy about presenting classes with actual case studies. "We were concerned that many students, who were working on the frontline of law enforcement, could have been involved in these actual incidents. But in the end we decided to go ahead with this because we think it reflected the reality of the contradictions being expressed as China develops so rapidly."

Liu Ping, deputy director of the Legislative Affairs Office of the Shanghai municipal government, delivered a special address to the students at the institute. "All you students here today are tomorrow's key government leaders and your understanding of the law and the ability to govern by law will determine the level of our country's rule of law. Our exchanges here can help give us more understanding about the real levels of our government's legal limits and law enforcement."

Recent research showed that the ability to deal with grass-roots complaints and ordinary people was seriously lacking in most present-day officials in China. The institute invited a prominent social worker, Bai Wanqing, to talk to the students about this.    

Bai told the class: "My qualifications and my work are beneath yours but we can still learn from each other. In reality I desperately want to talk to you all because so many of the problems that people come to me about involve your day-to-day work. If there is one thing I want to say, it is to urge you to think more about people in your work."

Pressure from the press

At the institute the students also took part in practical exercises to improve the way they handled emergencies. In one exercise the students had to deal with a demonstration where residents were complaining about a waste incinerator being built in their neighborhood.

Another class staged a news conference where students took the roles of journalists or officials. Experienced professional journalists viewed the conferences and commented on the way the students reacted to the questions. Zhao Yong, the teacher for this exercise, advised: "You can't change what has happened, but you can change the public's view of what happened through effective communication with the media." 

Zeng Jun, provost of Shanghai Administration Institute, said there was a lot of misunderstanding about the way the cadre training sessions worked. "People believed it used brainwashing and taught only boring theories and official clichés with no relevance to daily life. Also it was believed that the teaching methods and theories were out of date and that government officials only came to expand networks and to earn promotions," Zeng said. "Actually, most of our courses have nothing to do with promotion."

The students at the class are not just CPC members or government officials, but include members of democratic parties, private entrepreneurs, people who have returned from studying abroad and officials from Hong Kong and Macao.

"I think the institute's role is to teach the students about governing. We can't do this by philosophizing so we have to discuss real-life cases and use innovative teaching methods," Zeng told the Global Times.

According to Zeng, while many new teaching methods and equipment have been adopted, students in the class are also urged to play an active role in discussions.

Many of the 500 part-time teachers who work at the institute are non-government experts. And all of the heads of departments with the Shanghai municipal government and the CPC Shanghai Municipal Committee have conducted classes there.

International links

The institute works with more than 20 international institutions and not only do students from the institute go abroad to further their studies but several foreign academics have been invited to teach here.

In 2008, academics from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University led week-long executive public management training programs for new bureau directors at the institute. This was the first international exchange of its sort in any provincial-level CPC Party schools in China.

Arnold M. Howitt is the executive director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University. Last year was the fourth time he had lectured students at the institute.

Howitt told the Global Times in an e-mail interview that his program aimed to present ideas about effective management practices in the US and some other Western countries so that students could learn whether the problems and approaches to government service are similar or different to those in China and whether or not some of the ideas might be adapted to the Chinese situation.

"I have found my 'students' extremely stimulating and thought-provoking. Most are highly dedicated to service to China, deeply committed to continuing the remarkable growth and development that have characterized the period of reform and opening up, and thinking about how to take the next steps of development. I've been a university faculty member for 38 years and I can sincerely say that some of my most enjoyable, challenging, and satisfying teaching experiences have come over the past decade in working with Chinese officials," Howitt said.

A current class teacher at the institute, Ma Li, said that even after 21 years of experience teaching there, it was not easy. "The students are becoming more and more independent in the way they think. We have to try to understand each individual so that we can meet their requirements properly."

Strict rules

At the institute all the classes have strict rules for daily attendance - there's a complicated procedure for them if they want to ask for leave and, at the most, they will only be given leave three times.

"Student" Zhang Yingxia works with the Minhang Justice Bureau. She thoroughly enjoyed her spell at the institute and said she had taken not just two books of lecture notes home from the course but had developed close friendships with staff and "classmates." She felt especially honored when a teacher approached her after class to ask her advice on the ethics of raising some legal points in the lessons.

On October 11, all 55 students of the 69th class gathered in the institute's great hall for their graduation party. Zhang Yingxia was the hostess and, after many requests, the middle-aged legal practitioner sang some of the songs she had enjoyed when she first went to university. "I felt alive and young again," she told the Global Times.

Wang Guoping, executive president of the Shanghai Administration Institute, said that more specific courses are being planned for the future. "The work environment of the civil servants in China will change a lot for sure and the public will place more demands on them. I hope that we have not just the modern facilities for teaching but we have courses that will meet the demands for our times."

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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