BEIJING - Following Chinese President Xi Jinping's call for local officials to focus more on the quality rather than speed of economic growth, Guangdong province has approved a new appraisal system to assess cadres on their ability to deal with social stresses like income inequality and food safety.
The southern province, often seen as taking the lead in various economic and political reforms, will score officials on a 100-point system covering 37 aspects from social safety and fairness to green initiatives and even drug safety.
Reflecting the leadership's focus on social stability, every "mass incident", such as demonstrations or riots, involving 100,000 people will mean a 2-point deduction from the score.
No timetable and implementation details were given about the new rules, which were passed by a high-level "social work committee" headed by the province's deputy party chief, Mr Zhu Mingguo, on Wednesday.
Analysts remained sceptical about whether this heralds real change or is simply an exercise to score points with the new top leadership.
Local governments had long trumpeted their efforts to include quality aspects of growth in their performance appraisals, with the Beijing city authorities cited by state news agency Xinhua as the first to do so in June 2011.
But Guangdong's move may well be the first time a local government has made public a detailed scoring system to gauge cadre performance in areas such as social fairness and social welfare.
And it is applied to higher-level officials, not just the rank and file who face less public scrutiny.
All this could put pressure on other provinces to follow suit or at least to improve transparency, say analysts.
"The significance of Guangdong's appraisal system lies in its attempt to measure social work, which is very difficult to quantify, unlike economic progress," said Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences professor Peng Peng.
"This move reflects the greater attention and importance paid to building up society... not just the economy," he added.
Late last month, President Xi stressed in a speech that Communist Party cadres should not be judged solely on their record in boosting gross domestic product (GDP). Instead, the focus should be on "people's livelihood, the development of local society and the quality of environment".
These three areas feature prominently in Guangdong's new criteria, along with items such as drug and food safety and vague concepts like "social volunteerism".
The "targets included in the appraisal are those areas where the masses urgently need change", Mr Liu Runhua, deputy director of Guangdong's social work committee, was quoted by the local Southern Daily as saying on Wednesday.
The urgency to improve the quality of growth comes as the prosperous manufacturing hub, along with the rest of the country, grapples with growing public anger over social ills like yawning income gaps and pollution. These have sparked 180,000 "mass incidents" annually across China.
Still, some have questioned if there is a complete buy-in from Guangdong's top leaders for the new rules.
For one thing, they "were issued by the social work committee" rather than the highest provincial authority, public administration expert Liu Junsheng said.
The social welfare criteria are just one of many performance indices, local media reported.
The Guangdong government is still under pressure to pursue GDP growth. Its new party chief, Mr Hu Chunhua, warned in January that the province risked losing its No.1 GDP ranking to Jiangsu province. His deputy, Mr Zhu, had echoed this, urging officials "to grit our teeth and speed up growth".
Other concerns raised include whether the new appraisal system would serve its intended purpose.
"Having fewer mass incidents does not mean there is greater social fairness or officials will treat the people better," said Prof Liu.
One Guangdong resident Xiao Langping, a photographer, agreed. While he sees the rules as "sort of an improvement", he was worried that it might also push officials to use even more force to suppress mass demonstrations.
"So the rule is a double-edged sword, it could be good or bad," he wrote on his microblog.
- Grace Ng
Additional reporting by Lina Mao