In the eyes of subordinates, Meng Xuenong is a humble, hard-working and down-to-earth person. When sworn into office 14 months ago as governor of Shanxi province, Meng vowed to "clean up the bloody GDP and be a good public servant for Shanxi’s 30 million people."
The death of 270 people in September following a mudslide triggered by the collapse of an illegal mining dump in Xiangfeng city put an end to these heady ambitions. Meng resigned from his post.
China watchers could be forgiven their sense of déjà vu. Five years ago Meng was named vice mayor of Beijing only to be fired once it emerged that city officials had tried to cover up the spread of SARS.
That Meng was given a second chance in Shanxi makes him an exception in China, a country in which resignation normally means the end of an official’s political life. His case also raises questions of accountability.
"The resignations of some officials are just a show," said Chen Xiongfei, a professor at the Research Institute of the Ministry of Justice. "In some cases, officials have been sacked just to calm an angry public, but reappointed later without any clear explanation."
There are several theories concerning Meng’s posting in Shanxi. One is that he was made a scapegoat for the SARS cover-up – many hospitals in Beijing are owned by the central government or the military and so the vice mayor had no authority over them – and was deemed worthy of a second chance. Another is that Meng has received political protection from President Hu Jintao, a longstanding ally from their days in the Chinese Communist Youth League.
There is also a degree of public sympathy for Meng’s troubles in Shanxi, a province which has now been through four governors in the past three years. Each of the outgoing officials said that, given China’s poor mining safety record and the many coal mines in Shanxi, they felt like they were sitting on a volcano of industrial accidents waiting to explode.
However, public safety has become a key factor in assessing government officials’ performance as China seeks to move away from the philosophy of pursuing growth at any cost.
In September alone, dozens of officials resigned or were sacked as a result of safety scandals. These included the death of at least four infants who consumed tainted milk products, a fire in a Shenzhen nightclub in which 43 people were killed and a coal mine accident in Dengfeng city in Henan.
What remains unclear is the criteria by which government officials are held accountable. In public documents, there is no solid definition of what constitutes the "super-large security accidents" that typically warrant sackings. Furthermore, it tends to be only the minor officials who pay the price for their mistakes.
A collision between two trains in Shandong province in late April killed 70 people and cost the director of the Jinan Railway Bureau his job. So far, no senior official with the Ministry of Railways has stepped down. This doesn’t say much for Beijing’s purported push for accountability.
"The punishment and reappointment processes are mucky and even arbitrary," said Gong Weibin, a professor at the National School of Administration in Beijing. "China must establish a scientific and transparent system or the government’s accountability will be questioned."