Graft laws won't succeed until the princelings bow

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 January, 2008, 12:00am

Last week, a group of mostly retired government and Communist Party officials and intellectuals made public a letter through the internet, urging the mainland leadership to introduce laws and require all senior officials to declare their personal assets to curb corruption.

The letter, though published on the leftist website, is most likely to spark another round of sharp debates behind closed doors throughout the party and government.

The debate is likely to intensify in the run-up to the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, scheduled for early March.

The issue is one of the few about which NPC deputies and CPPCC delegates have felt most passionate nearly every year for the past 20-odd years.

But the general public on the mainland are unlikely to have any clue of the continuing debate because, if history is any indication, the mainland leadership will mostly ignore motions and suppress any media coverage of the issue.

It is not difficult to understand why so many officials and intellectuals have placed high stakes on the enactment of the law. They believe it can be an effective weapon to curb increasingly rampant corruption, particularly by the children, spouses and other family members of top government and party leaders, collectively known as 'princelings'.

The letter - signed by more than 50 officials and intellectuals and addressed to President Hu Jintao , the NPC and CPPCC - suggested that government officials who hold a rank equivalent to a county deputy chief or higher and their immediate family members declare their personal assets within 20 days after taking office and do so annually until they step down.

It said the central government began to draft a law requiring civil servants to declare their assets as early as 1988.

Since then, NPC deputies, CPPCC delegates, law professors and officials have called for such a law every year but to no avail.

Many reasons have been given for the delay in formulating a law, including the issue of privacy, enforcement difficulties and a natural resistance from tens of millions of civil servants and party officials.

But unknown to the public, the biggest resistance has always come from top mainland leaders.

Over the past years, members of the Politburo and its Standing Committee are believed to have discussed the issue several times but failed to reach a conclusion.

While the leaders have no problem declaring their own salaries and assets, they have shown great reluctance in asking their children and other relatives to comply.

The most forgiving explanation for this is evidenced in many leaders' laments that as their children have grown up, they have found it difficult to control them, just like any other parents.

This is nonsense.

As repeatedly argued in this column, Beijing's fight against corruption will go nowhere unless top leaders themselves set an example.

In a society which places great value on leaders setting examples, if the leaders cannot persuade their children to do this, how can they persuade their subordinates to comply?

That explains why mainland leaders' previous anti-corruption efforts have failed miserably.

In 2001, they released a document requiring provincial governors and cabinet ministers to declare their family assets but did not specify how.

Later, another document said children and immediate relatives of provincial governors and cabinet ministers and officials below that rank were not allowed to work for industries or firms directly supervised by those officials.

But the rules apparently did not apply to members of the Politburo and its Standing Committee, presumably on the assumption that those leaders control pretty much every industry on the mainland. Therefore, their children or wives would not be able to find jobs.

While there is nothing wrong with princelings engaged in business activities, what gets the blood of ordinary mainlanders boiling is that those princelings take advantage of the power of their related officials to make enormous profits.

The princelings enjoy virtually the same political protection and status as the officials, which means their business activities are off-limits to supervision or public scrutiny.

This has greatly emboldened them. Look at virtually every major deal on the mainland these days and you'll find this or that princeling behind it. Requiring them to declare their business activities publicly and subjecting them to press scrutiny would make them think twice.