Mainland auditor needs more teeth to tackle graft
The plan to extend national audit scrutiny to some of the mainland's top decision-making bodies is to be lauded. But the auditor's office would have a greater impact on official corruption if it were granted broader powers to pursue the cases it already handles.
China's expanding economy has brought more opportunities for corruption and misuse of public funds, that much is clear. Meanwhile, tackling the problem by subjecting government bodies to greater supervision has been one of the priorities of the new leadership of Premier Wen Jiabao. Behind the drive lies a certain amount of idealism - and a realisation that unscrupulous official behaviour fuels discontent at the grassroots. The risks include social and political instability as well as wasted resources and a worsening bad-loans burden resulting from misdirected lending.
It is no surprise, then, that so much prominence has been given to the auditor-general's latest annual report to the National People's Congress Standing Committee - and the finding that some 1.4 billion yuan of government money ended up in the wrong pockets last year. Plans for auditing the influential National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, revealed this week, also seem a reasonable extension of the anti-graft efforts.
But it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the greatest abuses occur at ministry and lower levels. This year's auditor's report demonstrated that fairly clearly. It highlighted misappropriation of disaster and poverty-relief funds, flood-works money and even resources for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Beyond the government budget, the auditor singled out state-owned banks for criticism for allowing private parties to take out billions of yuan worth of loans using falsified documents. By contrast, the NPC and CPPCC control relatively small budgets, and auditing them would be primarily symbolic.
The test of the anti-graft campaign's success will be in whether the national auditor's clout continues to grow and whether the agency's findings are pursued by prosecutors. On paper, the auditor has the right to stop spending that it deems illegal. In practice, it is not clear how often this happens. Many of the cases revealed in this year's report are already the subject of investigations and have already come to light in the official press. Will future reports carry more groundbreaking investigations and will law enforcement be co-ordinated with the findings - even in the face of opposition from local officials?
Since coming to office, Mr Wen and the new leadership have campaigned steadily to introduce transparency in government decision-making, including the allocation of funds. Progress towards this goal cannot be made unless the auditor's office enjoys adequate independence and power to act.