China Power

Enough is Enough! Chinese Officials Must Declare Assets

Recent Features

China Power

Enough is Enough! Chinese Officials Must Declare Assets

Since 1987 the Chinese public has called for sunshine laws mandating that officials declare their property.

Bo Xilai’s recently concluded trial was the high mark thus far in the new Chinese leadership’s anti-corruption campaign.

Bo, once the Party Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee and a member of the Central Committee Political Bureau (Politburo), was charged with bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.

No matter how much insider politics in the CCP were behind the decision to charge Bo, the majority of the Chinese public see him as a prime example of the type of corruption officials regularly engage in.

Since taking over the as president back in March, Xi Jinping has sought to crackdown on official corruption with his anti-graft campaign. There have been some notable results. For instance, in mid-August, Liu Tienan, a former member of China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Communist Party chief of the National Energy Administration, was put under judicial investigation for bribery. Earlier, in July, Liu Zhijun, the former Railways Minister was sentenced to death with a two year reprieve on a similar charge. Some have claimed that there have been 10 senior officials from Chongqing and Guangdong, Sichuan, Shanxi, and Xinjiang Provinces have been under investigation since the 18th National Party Congress last November. Even foreign pharmaceutical companies— most notably, Glaxo Smith Kline Co. Ltd(GSK)—have come under investigation as part of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive.

There’s no doubt that corruption is one of the factors driving the ever-widening income gap in China. Still, the current anti-corruption effort is more likely to be another face-saving measure to appease public opinion than a valiant effort to address the problem.

Superficially, the anti-corruption campaign could win public acclaim, especially with Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media network, magnifying every arrest.

But ultimately only one thing can truly get to the heart of the corruption problem in China: an official property declaration system (sunshine laws).  

The Chinese public has been calling for mandatory sunshine laws that force officials to declare their salaries, wealth, real estate, and other property since 1987. In 1995 the Party issued a regulation mandating that officials declare their wealth and assets to an internal Party body. Still, many have claimed the implementation of this order has been lax, and the information is in any case not publicly available. Consequently, 63 percent of corrupt provincial officials still get promoted even after they take bribes, according to a study by Tian Guoliang, a professor at the Central Party School.

Thus, the Chinese public appear no closer to having the Party heed their calls for sunshine laws today, then they were in 1987. Indeed, a series of pilot programs that were initiated in 2009 in places like Altay, Xinjiang Province; Liuyang, Hunan Province; and Cixi City, Zhejiang Province, have all been rolled back one by one. Some were eliminated because they were initiated by a single local leader, who subsequently retired or moved onto other areas. Other programs have been shuttered because of poor implementation. 

With more and more scandals about officials’ lavish lifestyles coming to light in recent, legal and economic scholars in China have redoubled their campaign for sunshine laws. In one notable instance, Xu Xin, a famous law professor at Beijing Institute of Technology updated his Weibo everyday with posts demanding an official property declaration system.

This appears to have slowly pressured some in the Party to take action. Indeed, pilot programs have restarted in some areas, such as Huai’an, Jiangsu Province and Jiangning District in Nanjing City. One of the most popular ones was initiated in Nansha district in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province. Unfortunately, nothing has yet come of it.

Colleen Wong is a China Power columnist.