BEIJING, Dec. 30 (Xinhua) -- Accountability became a vogue word in Chinese politics in 2008, highlighted by the resignation of the chief quality supervisor.
Li Changjiang, former director of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, stepped down in September in the tainted milk scandal, days after the resignation of Shanxi Governor Meng Xuenong following a deadly landslide triggered by the collapse of an illegal mining dump.
Many junior officials also swallowed the bitter pills of penalties and resignations. In early December, the director of the construction bureau of Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei Province, was removed from his post after six bureau officials were found gambling during work time.
Officials were even punished for dozing in meetings, such as 12local officials in Shaanxi Province, who were reprimanded in June.
"The accountability system has been taken to a new high, which reflects the method of administration as stipulated in the keynote report of the 17th Party congress," said Wu Zhongmin of the Party School of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee.
"The party underlines the idea of people first, so it is not unusual that officials are punished after public interests are infringed," Wu said.
Chinese media have used the word "storm" to describe the wave of cases in which officials were punished over accountability -- often indirect -- in accidents and scandals this year. Such events were rare in the past decade.
In southwestern Yunnan Province, 864 officials have been punished so far this year, while at least 279 in the northeastern Jilin Province have been punished since last November.
"A storm is powerful, and the accountability storm shows the country's determination to run the party and government properly," said Han Yu, professor in the Party School of the CPC Hebei Provincial Committee.
The storm also shows the power of public opinion, Han added. "There should be someone held responsible for serious infringement of public interests."
China activated the official accountability system during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003. More than1,000 officials, including then Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong, were ousted for attempts to cover up the epidemic or incompetence in SARS prevention and control.
The system was later introduced at all levels of government, and more officials lost their jobs over major accidents or administrative errors.
Just days before Li's resignation, President Hu Jintao, also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, reprimanded "some officials" over work and food safety accidents this year.
These accidents indicated that some cadres lacked a sense of responsibility and had loose governance, and some paid no attention to people's complaints and were even insensitive to life-threatening problems, Hu said.
As early as in May, a father complained about tainted milk powder after his 13-year-old daughter developed kidney stones, and the Department of Health of Gansu Province in July received a report implying problematic milk powder produced by the Sanlu Group headquartered in Shijiazhuang city.
However, the scandal was covered up until September. The Ministry of Health has said it was likely the contamination killed six babies. Another 294,000 infants suffered from urinary problems such as kidney stones.
Premier Wen Jiabao said development of enterprises and the economy should not be achieved at the cost of lives and public health, and he vowed to punish officials for major incidents.
Conditions could be tougher for officials in the future, as the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in late December that authorities are drafting rules to intensify the accountability system.