Sometime in 2010, a senior official in the Chinese Communist Party named Zhao Xiyong arrived in Yunnan, a mountainous province that is one of the poorest in China. Zhao had a jet-black hair, a fancy title (head of the Beijing-based State Council Research Office), a big appetite and lots of empty nostrums about good governance. Officials in Yunnan doted over him for three years, toasting him at dinners and competing for his favor.
Except that Zhou wasn't a senior Communist Party official. He hadn't been sent by Beijing and, fatefully, did not have the power to implement his promise to turn Yunnan's capital into a "special economic zone," as he did in November. As the Telegraph's Malcolm Moore writes Tuesday, that pledge made big news in Yunnan. Such big news that it got back to Beijing, where, earlier this month, the State Council Research Office had to issue this statement, translated by the Telegraph:
We have recently received reports that Zhao Xiyong is pretending to be the head of the State Council Research Office and an official of vice-minister level. We announce that he does not work for the State Council, and that no research team has ever been sent to Yunnan province," said a statement.
Zhou's whereabouts are currently unknown, the Telegraph reports, but he could face years in prison if he's found.
A Chinese social media user joked, according to Shanghaiist's translation, that Zhou wasn't so unlike a real Chinese official: He made empty promises, accomplished little and collected tributes. Another way he's similar to some senior Chinese officials is that his tenure ended in national disgrace and threat of jailtime.
It's a funny story but also a reminder of the scale of the Communist Party leadership's big, perhaps biggest, problem: controlling its own sprawling officialdom. Consider how Zhou's charade did not collapse: by Yunnan officials or citizens, suspicious of how Zhou could carry on for three years without delivering a single thing, and maybe resentful of the dutiful treatment he received anyway, checking his credentials. Or complaining to someone in Beijing. For three years, this didn't happen.
If anyone in Yunnan thought that Zhou's behavior was unusual for a senior party official, they didn't raise a fuss about it.
The incident also is a window into the complex, and imperfect, relationship between senior officials in Beijing and the regional officials who enact their policies. Since long before the Communist Party existed, China's central government has struggled to enforce its will over a vast country with lots of entrenched interests and local governments. One way that Beijing does this is by making sure that its officials are treated as quasi-royalty by subservient local officials. That can be helpful in keeping the vast Chinese bureaucracy under control, but it also makes it easy for senior Beijing officials to exploit their own power over local officials, pushing them around for their own gain. Zhou just got some flattery and free dinners, but then again he had no actual power to lord over Yunnan's officials. The fact that no one in Yunnan appears to have questioned Beijing about Zhou, or if they did were rebuffed, is a sign of the sometimes-unhealthy power dynamic between Beijing and provincial leadership.