According to a July 19 story in China Daily (which I only noticed today), Premier Wen Jiabao holds his own umbrella in the rain, and that is cause for celebration among Chinese internet users.
In the story, and (according to the story), Wen’s umbrella self-sufficiency is contrasted approvingly with photos of Chinese local government officials who insist on having their umbrellas held by others.
I bring up this story – and these photos – because they highlight an important issue that is not often appreciated or covered in the Western media: namely, the common Chinese belief that local government officials are of lower quality (both as human beings, and as administrators) than their national superiors. These issues were documented most dramatically, and movingly, in “Will the Boat Sink the Water,” an exploration of contemporary Chinese peasant life published by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao in 2004 (and subsequently banned in China). Using several examples from Anhui Province, Chen and Wu explore the regal trappings of power cultivated and enjoyed by China’s (often) poorly educated local officials. In the book, those abuses are somestimes remedied – slightly – by the intervention of better-educated bureaucrats from Beijing (though Chen and Wu are quite clear that Beijing’s intervention is an extraordinary event, not a typical one).
Recent news events, including the awful Shanxi brick scandal, are stark expressions of the Chinese local government quality issue, and why those governments are held in such contempt by so many Chinese. Whether or not leaders in Beijing are, in fact, any better than the local government officials is a topic for another day (though I think it’s quite clear that they are). For now, I’ll note that it is quite interesting, indeed, that an item like the Wen umbrella story received coverage in the state-owned media. Surely, it makes Wen look better. But what interest is advanced by making the local governments looking worse than they appear already?