Is China's 'Sunshine Law' Within Reach?


Recently, while eating with civil servants in China, I discovered that more and more of them understand that President Xi Jinping is fighting corruption with all his strength. According to conventional wisdom, you’d think that civil servants naturally would be against anti-corruption, because it targets those within the Party and bureaucrats. But the reality is just the opposite. After all, out of the tens of millions of civil servants in China, only a handful have any real power – and not all of those are willing to trade their power for money or sex. The majority of civil servants are deeply resentful of those who use their power to monopolize resources, although they don’t dare say anything about it.

But some have realized that they don’t have any way to change the situation, so they decided, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” If you live in the mud, there’s no way you can avoid getting dirty, so to speak. So for many years, the public has had the impression that there are no clean officials. Every civil servant is a “suspect” in the eyes of the public – even without investigations or judgment, officials are seen as guilty.

Xi began his anti-corruption fight as soon as he took power. Many civil servants saw the coming storm and decided to keep their heads low. I have several friends who are waiting for this “anti-corruption storm” to blow over. But after waiting for two years, we’ve seen around 100 “tigers” taken down – it seems the “good old days” for these officials are really over. After realizing that, they took another look at Xi’s anti-corruption, and realized it wasn’t so terrifying. After all, these friends of mine have no real power. Although they gradually came to master China’s “unspoken rules,” they are also tormented themselves by these “rules.” If not, why have they asked me to send their children to those evil capitalist countries instead of having their kids follow in their parents’ footsteps as government workers?

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Once the average civil servant realizes that anti-corruption is going to continue, China finally has a chance to see the “unspoken rules” torn down and replaced by fairness and justice. Even now, they are starting to support Xi’s anti-corruption.

Of course, those officers who support anti-corruption policy belong to a certain category: civil servants with ambitions and aspirations who nonetheless are not willing to associate with evil doers and seek ill-gotten gains. When the anti-corruption campaign first started, these officials were suspicious and even afraid. It anti-corruption came to a sudden halt, those civil servants who actively cooperated with the effort would face serious consequences. To gain their cooperation Xi first had to “draw the snake from its hole” – to reassure them to make them poke their heads out. Now, two years have passed, and these potential allies are feeling restless – they’ve seen the corrupt officials they hated all along be taken down, and the corrupt they hate so much is being clean up by the central government. Suddenly, these civil servants see an opportunity and hope – they begin to become more active.

Anti-corruption in China has two parts: breaking the current system (catching corrupt officials) and establishing a new system. When it comes to catching the corrupt, the government could probably never meet the public’s expectations, but going by the numbers of ousted officials we’re seeing a lot of progress. But there’s a slowdown when it comes to establishing a new system.

That doesn’t mean there’s been no progress. For example, last year China started implementing a registration system for real estate and stock ownership of civil servants. The authorities have said that they will conduct spot checks on this information, with stricter checks every time an official is promoted. Multiple local governments have cancelled a planned promotion because an official didn’t properly register real estate (for example, having houses registered under their children’s name).

This is similar to the system that we’ve called for many times in the last few years – asset declaration for all officials. The intention is that if asset declaration continues, each new crop of officials will clearly declare their assets – and eventually every official will have done so. Those who don’t won’t be able to seek promotions.

However, it’s clear that declaring real estate and stock ownership is different from having officials declare all their assets. The most significant point is that officials so far don’t have to register their bank records! It seems the new rules purposefully left untouched the largest indication of wealth.

But maybe this isn’t a deliberate omission, but an example of caution. If China began to implement total asset declaration right off the bat – including bank records – the huge sums involved might shake people’s confidence in the government.

So instead, the government started by focusing on stock ownership (and the problem of insider trading) and real estate (which causes high housing prices). Once officials are used to declaring assets like real estate and stocks, it will be easier when, perhaps in 2017 at the next Party Congress, the government requires the declaration of bank records as well. This is like boiling a frog by slowly turning up the heat – he won’t notice until it’s too late.

Having officials declare their assets is an important step in establishing a system that prevents corruption. Two years ago, an internal survey of civil servants showed that the majority were opposed to asset declaration. If the same survey were conducted now, I think the result would be different. This is the result of Xi’s efforts.

Just over a year ago, a bigshot in Beijing was anxiously asking me if anti-corruption would shake people’s confidence in the Communist Party. Imagine my surprise when, just last month, he had the opposite concern: if anti-corruption stops now, won’t people lose confidence in the Communist Party? Chinese people aren’t fools. So what if corruption is exposed – as long as the government is fully dedicated to solving the problem, people won’t lose faith in the Party. Instead, they’ll have more hope than ever. But in turn the Party has to cherish that hope.

Every government that wants to achieve something must have the support of the common people. Therefore, the government must not only establish its authority but also build up its credibility. I think when the government actually puts in place asset declaration for officials, also known as a “Sunshine Law,” the people will be supportive and China’s reforms will become a lot easier.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

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