The importance of people-first principle

Updated: 2012-02-11 08:11

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)

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The importance of people-first principle

The second edition of Huang Wanli's biography, Lonely Journey Along the River, was published just before Spring Festival. The book's release itself was news because Huang, as professor of hydro-engineering, is well-known for his opposition to the construction of the Sanmenxia Dam and the Three Gorges Dam. His prediction in 1957 that Sanmenxia Dam would be a disaster has unfortunately come true.

History is compared to a mirror that reflects the errors we have committed. Huang's biography should serve as such a mirror for decision-makers. What I feel strongly after reading the book is not just the audacity with which Huang expressed his opinion on the disastrous consequences of the dam. It is also the reservation I have long had about "pooling resources from all sides to accomplish big things", which Deng Xiaoping said while talking about the advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The rapid economic growth of the past more than three decades, the grand events such as the Beijing 2008 Olympics and Shanghai 2010 World Expo that China has held, and the country's mega-projects like high-speed railways and the Three Gorges Dam certainly do justice to Deng's remark.

But the great power to pool resources of an entire society can be disastrous if decision-makers make the wrong decision. The positive effect of the advantages is proportionate to the negative effect. That can be seen in the big disasters in the middle of the last century such as the Great Leap Forward, which led to the famine that caused the death of millions of villagers. The failure of Sanmenxia Dam is an even better example.

There is no doubt, though, that Deng referred to big things that should be accomplished in the interest of the people. But there are instances of accomplishing big things just for the sake of big things rather than for the benefit of society as a whole.

Big construction projects have become the major source of corruption because some decision-makers have an eye for big events so that they can profit from them. In this sense, the advantage of pooling resources from all sides to accomplish big things has, to some extent, become the tool of power abuse and corruption especially for some local governments.

That's why governments at all levels need to practice democratic decision-making. No wonder, soliciting public opinion on the Internet or through letters and phone calls nowadays has become a common practice before taking the final decision on big projects or events.

But there is still a long way to go before the entire decision-making process becomes transparent and public opinion is really counted to have a bearing on the future of the country.

In addition, lack of attention or ignorance of small things that have a direct bearing on the quality of people's life is usually seen as a side effect of the government's keenness to accomplish big things. For example, in their rush to build skyscrapers, highways and flyovers, many officials have ignored the importance of the drainage system, which has resulted in the flooding of almost all underpasses during heavy showers in Beijing. Also, an increasing number of sewage treatment plants have been built but very few pipelines have been laid to enable families to flush their toilets with non-potable water.

True, our government can be proud of the advantages of pooling resources of the entire society to build big projects or hold grand events. But it should not forget that the advantages could become disadvantages if opposing views are crowded out of the decision-making process.

If anything, there is need for officials to change their administrative mindset on the advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The people-first principle that the central authorities have reiterated time and again has something to do with such change. What this principle requires is the consideration for small things that are of great concern to the quality of people's life.

Of course, the advantages Deng talked about can always be used to accomplish the most arduous tasks in the country, but for that decision-makers also need to open enough channels to seek opinions and advice to make the right decision.

Huang's biography is an excellent read, particularly for government leaders, for this matter.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily.

(China Daily 02/11/2012 page5)