Last week China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that it would be launching a pilot scheme to force newly appointed cadres to report and disclose their family assets. Even though no word has been given on how this new information will be verified or collected, it is largely being looked at as a step forward in China’s interminable fight against corruption. However, activists in Jiangxi Province and around the country — who have been campaigning for this very concept for years — are still not out of the woods.
The trial of Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping, and Li Sihua began on Monday, was suspended on Tuesday, and will resume on Wednesday. Their crime was simple: unfurling and photographing a banner to attract attention to their cause of releasing detained protesters and demanding the disclosure of officials’ wealth. After posting the picture on the Internet in April, the three found themselves in detainment a week later for “illegal assembly.”
The CCDI’s recent announcement about the disclosure of assets for new officials brings little comfort to those campaigning for more substantial moves. Roseann Rife, East Asia research director for Amnesty international told The Diplomat, “Clearly, they’re being tried for peacefully expressing their human rights, and they shouldn’t be charged at all. They should be immediately released. If the government is actually making moves toward discussing how to release this kind of information … it seems to indicate that this is information that should be in the public realm, so why are these people still being tried?”
Many activists and protesters languish in prisons and detainment around the nation for illegal assembly or that famous catchall term “incitement to subvert state power” for advocating the disclosure of assets. Such is the case of Ding Jiaxi who has been detained since mid-April, also charged with “illegal assembly” for his support of the disclosure of assets among other things. The same can be said of Xu Zhiyong, one of the founders of the Open Constitution Initiative, who was formally arrested on August 22nd.
Bao Tong, who served as a political aide to former premier Zhao Ziyang, said in an appeal on Radio Free Asia: “Relevant pilot schemes carried out by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection prove their innocence. The ‘gentlemen’ Ding, Xu, and Wang, who were detained in Beijing, should be immediately and unconditionally released.” Bao Tong, currently under house arrest, speaks from experience.
Expectations are not high for the CCDI’s new program, but it could be a step in the right direction. Rife commented, “I think it’s a very public statement, and it’s only as good as the actions behind it. If they’re just putting this out as rhetoric to improve the image of the government, that’s not going to help any of these activists. They need to actually implement and respect these rights.”
Asset disclosure is arguably one of the most controversial subjects in China. Supposedly not far removed from the glorious proletariat, it doesn’t look good for China’s leaders to have family assets greater than the nominal GDP of Burundi. More than protesters and activists have suffered for this ideal, with news organizations like Bloomberg and the New York Times famously taking a metaphorical beating for reporting on leaders’ assets. That said, actually making asset allocation public is good for just about everyone: good for Xi’s corruption crackdown, good for transparency, and good for the people who want to see how much their leaders are worth. The only wrench in the works are the actual officials and their fortunes; as such, the idea of making this pilot program applicable only to newly appointed or promoted candidates keeps the old guard safe.
It’s too soon to tell if the move by the CCDI is more than just posturing, but fundamentally, for activists on the ground, the game remains unchanged. As Rife states, “It’s impossible to predict what will happen. I think, unfortunately, these individuals are acting for information that should be in the public domain. They’re expressing their opinion. They’re trying to essentially improve human rights. I think opportunities for them to run afoul of the government will continue.”