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China's cadres play 'Survivor'

In this story:

Liberalized system

Cadres moving up

Lucrative careers

Basic power structure

(CNN) -- What is uppermost on the minds of Chinese cadres the past couple of weeks?

Not the standoff with the Americans over the spy plane. Nor the struggle against the Falun Gong "evil cult."

And certainly not President's Jiang Zemin's call for the revival of "proletarian democratic dictatorship."

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Particularly for mid-ranking and senior officials, only this question seems relevant: will they be promoted, demoted, or forced into early retirement in the marathon personnel changes to take place in the run-up to, and immediately after, the 16th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress late next year?

It is expected that many top positions -- including memberships in the Politburo and the party Central Committee -- would basically be decided at the leadership conference at the Beidaihe resort this August.

The changing of the guard will be more thorough in the coming two years because of the wholesale replacement of third-generation politicians, who are in their 70s, by fourth-generation rising stars aged from the mid 50s to early 60s.

Of much more significance than the political fortunes of individuals, however, is the fact that the cadre system is in for a major shake-up.

A political source in the capital said after years of doubts and zigzags, the Jiang leadership has settled on an elitist "political reform with Chinese characteristics."

Liberalized system

While, as Deng Xiaoping indicated, China would never adopt the Western system of one man one vote and multi-party politics, the CCP is poised to liberalize the cadre system to ensure that young, bright talents from disparate backgrounds can be inducted into top echelons. "Jiang wants a formula that will combine one party rule with an efficient, elitist and relatively broad-based cadre system," said the source. "Reform of the cadre system may be the only move in political liberalization for the rest of the decade."

He added that such administrative reform had the support of Vice-President Hu Jintao, Premier Zhu Rongji, and Jiang protégé Zeng Qinghong, head of the CCP Organization Department.

Analysts said it was significant that Zeng had earlier this month paid a visit to Singapore to study its civil service. The CCP has often praised the city state for combining one party rule with efficient administration.

In the past half year or so, Beijing has also sent delegations to countries and regions including the U.S., Canada, Germany and Hong Kong to study their administrative systems.

Analysts have pointed to four changes that have already been introduced to the cadre system.

Firstly, Beijing is keen to adopt the principle, observed with success in Singapore and Hong Kong, of "using high salaries to ensure clean government."

Finance Minister Xiang Huaicheng disclosed last Thursday that Beijing had earmarked 80 billion yuan this year for pay rises for 45 million civil servants.

Secondly, stricter retirement rules are being implemented. Earlier this year, two senior cadres, head of the State Economic and Trade Commission Sheng Huaren and Minister of Science and Technology, Zhu Lilan stepped down at the age of 65.

Cadres moving up

Under past practice, since their five-year tenure began in early 1998, Sheng and Zhu would have been able to serve until 2003.

The authorities have recently decided that as far as possible, more cadres in their late 40s would be considered for vice ministerial-level positions -- and more cadres in their early 50s would be made ministers or provincial governors.

Equally noteworthy is the experiment with the open recruitment of cadres. While no plans have yet been finalized, the leadership is leaning toward letting a sizeable percentage of mid- to high-ranking government posts to be picked through public exams.

According to one proposal, a third of all positions at the level of heads of bureaus and departments in provinces and cities should in five years' time be recruited in this way.

Experiments so far conducted in several Guangdong cities have yielded interesting results.

In applying for the jobs, which are advertized in newspapers, CCP members are at least in theory given no preference over non-party members. In addition to a written exam on professional knowledge, candidates must sit for an oral test on political skills.

And Guangdong authorities have asked a number of "people's representatives," mostly deputies to local-level people's congresses and consultative conferences, to be oral examiners.

A Shenzhen official familiar with civil service reform said if this experiment with mid-ranking officials was successful, open recruitment would toward the end of this decade be extended to a variety of posts at the level of vice-ministers and vice-governors.

Beijing is also working on an efficient and equitable system for firing officials who don't pass muster.

The mainland press has in the past few months run many stories on what is billed as a new culture of responsibility: incompetent bureau and department heads or county chiefs are encouraged to take early retirement for the public good.

Lucrative careers

"It is true that quite a few regional officials have quit on their own initiative," said the Shenzhen official. "However, most do so to pursue lucrative careers in the business world.

"There is no reliable mechanism to get rid of dead wood, particularly those at senior levels."

Traditionally, a bumbling official can only be got rid of -- or, more often than not, transferred to a less important portfolio or province -- by the Organization Department.

While the department carries out frequent assessments of cadres, these appraisals usually have to do with the officials' compliance with ideological, not professional, standards.

The media has carried frequent reports of cadres being nabbed for corruption. Yet few officials have been cashiered for incompetence.

According to a party source, Zeng wants to set up a "scientific" appraisal system in every ministry, province and city along the lines of a quasi-public tribunal.

"Ideally, assessment tribunals should have a good proportion of non-officials, including academics, people's congress deputies, and professionals from different fields," the source said.

At the same time, various cities have started asking cadres to put down performance pledges -- or lists of objectives they hope to achieve in a given year.

Officials deemed to have repeatedly failed to fulfil such pledges will have to go.

It is, however, obvious that these experiments can only go so far given the CCP leadership's determination to preserve one-party dominance.

Basic power structure

For example, the highest authority in China resides with the Politburo and other top party organs. And even if a proportion of vice ministerial-level positions are selected via public exams, the basic power structure of the country will hardly be affected.

And the latest speculation relating to impending personnel changes would seem to suggest that the CCP leadership lacks the resolve to go the distance in the reform of the cadre system.

Diplomatic analysts said the party's two most senior cadres, President Jiang and parliamentary chief Li Peng, are scheming to maintain their influence beyond the 16th congress.

It is well known that the 74-year-old president is hoping to serve one more term as chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, that is, until 2007.

And Li, 72, has indicated to close aides that he is eyeing the post of state president, which will be vacated by Jiang in 2003.

Publicists for Jiang and Li are saying that because the nation is facing unprecedented challenges at home and abroad, fourth-generation leaders still need the advice of a small number of third-generation stalwarts for a few more years.

The only concession Jiang and Li are willing to make is that they are willing to give up their seats on the Politburo Standing Committee

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