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Asset Transparency Urged to Fight Government Graft

Calls for government officials to disclose personal and family assets are growing louder in China, mainly in reaction to the rising number of corruption cases affecting officialdom.

And some officials are listening. A local Communist Party official in Hunan province, for example, spelled out his personal assets through a microblog (weibo) October 30.

Zhang Tiancheng, deputy secretary of the Communist Party’s politics and legal affairs committee in the Hunan city of Hanshou, reported a monthly salary of 2,981 yuan. He also said he got an annual bonus of 4,732 yuan. His wife, he reported, made about 30,000 yuan a year, and his family has inherited a house and a flat worth about 400,000 yuan.

The value of the flat has risen significantly over the year, Zhang admitted in his weibo post. He said he paid a monthly mortgage of 777 yuan.

Zhang’s report covered his children, too. He reported a 220,000-yuan dowry for his daughter, for which he still owed lenders about 40,000 yuan.

Zhang’s disclosure may help soothe at least some fears in Hanshou—and across the country—about the extent of corruption in China. Some call it the biggest problem facing the government and the ruling Communist Party.

At the party’s recently concluded 18th National Party Congress, former party general secretary and President Hu Jintao warned that graft could lead to a collapse for the entire party.

Many across the country would like to see officials release information about their assets. They’re also hoping for a national “sunshine law” that forces party cadres to tell the public all they can about their wealth.

To date, Zhang is a standout. Only a handful of officials have voluntarily opened their personal and family accounting books to outsiders.

Meanwhile, some Internet users have gotten around the non-transparent habits of government officials to expose cases of corruption.

Yang Dacai, the head of the Work Safety Department in Shaanxi province, was recently outed through a web photo-posting for smiling at the scene of a fatal traffic accident. He tried to play down the incident, but his situation grew worse after Internet users noticed a photo in which he posed wearing an expensive watch on his wrist.

Digging ensued, and it was found that Yang owned at least five luxury watches. He insisted all were bought with his own money, but the investigation eventually led to a probe by the local party anti-corruption watchdog and Yang’s downfall.

On September 21, the watchdog said Yang had been detained for serious violations.

A 1995 decree issued by the central government and the Communist Party says each official in a mid-level position and higher must submit an annual report detailing personal assets to internal government monitors. But the reports are kept in-house.

“It’s not open to the public, so the reporting process becomes mostly perfunctory,” said Wang Yukai, a public management professor at the Academy of Governance, an institute in Beijing that trains civil servants. “The result is many corrupt officials flee overseas with massive illegal gains.”

Wang said Yang’s case shows that the public and Internet users can close the transparency gap when am official, internal reporting system failed to function properly. Internet sleuthing for official wealth is “extreme,” he said, but it’s “pushing the government to set up an assets disclosure mechanism open to the public.”

Local Experiments

Since 2009, some local governments have started asset disclosure programs. Most are at the very bottom of China’s administrative hierarchy—at the prefecture and county level—and do not involve the central government.

Officials in Altay, in the Xinjiang region, Qianjiang in Chongqing, Yinchuan in the Ningxia region, and Huai’an, Jiangsu province, now have disclosure systems. Another sixteen counties have similar mechanisms.

The degree of disclosure in these experiments varies from one community to another. Most choose to disclose incomes of newly promoted, low-level cadres. Although welcomed by the public, though, many of these pilot programs have had a short lifespan.

Wang Xixin, a law professor at Peking University, said these sorts of tests can fail for several reasons. Usually, he said, the programs were introduced by one or two influential local officials who may or may not stand for long against other officials who oppose sunshine efforts.

Since official asset disclosure is neither required by law nor under party regulations, Wang said, there is no institutional backing for a programs backed by no more than a few officials in a community.

Altay’s disclosure program was set up by Wu Weiping, the head of the local party discipline committee. He created the system, set up a website, and publicized his phone number, inviting public comments, questions, and complaints. Several months after the launched, through, Wu died of an illness. The website is no longer accessible.

The effectiveness of these local experiments is also in doubt.

“Newly promoted officials have not been exposed to power yet, and it’s easy to ask them to disclose their income,” said Han Deyun, a delegate to the National People’s Congress, the nation’s top legislature and a long-time advocate for a disclosure system.

“This measure is preventative in nature, with no effect on those with actual power.”

Wang says disclosure must start at the top. “Without determination among top leaders, it’s hard to set up related rules and laws, and hard to overcome obstacles in implementation.”

Han says the party elite does, in fact, have a plan. “The top leaders have made up their mind on this,” he said.

In August, Han received a written reply to questions he had posed to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the nation’s anti-graft watchdog. He was told, “There should be a disclosure system” but a sticking point was “how to forge a plan for disclosure with Chinese characteristics that fits China’s current conditions.”

Several high-level party officials said on the sidelines of the recent 18th Party Congress they favor sunshine laws for such disclosures.

Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, said November 9 that if the Central Committee issued such rules, he would take the initiative in releasing information about his personal assets. Tian Lipu, director of the country’s patent office, voiced similar sentiments.

Wang Yang, the party boss of Guangdong province and a member of the Politburo, said his province was experimenting with asset-declaration systems and would continue to explore various methods.