Time for cadres to come clean on assets

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2009, 12:00am

The fastest, surest way for a government to tackle corruption is to force officials and their families to regularly declare their assets. The central government leadership well know this, which is why the issue has for years been on the agenda of top-level meetings. Laws and rules have been passed and pilot schemes are under way in a handful of cities, but the efforts have been half-hearted and poorly enforced. Until there is concerted leadership from the top, the problem will continue to be the biggest bug-bear for the nation's development.

Leaders have an opportunity to correct their ways in September. They would seem to be using the Communist Party's last central committee meeting before the 60th anniversary of it taking power to chew over the nation's challenges. Asset declaration is among items for discussion. Anniversaries are a time for celebration, but should also be occasions for reflection and revision; given the significance of the gathering and the rank of those attending, the matter must be taken up with commitment.

The party has made great strides in moving the nation forward over the past three decades, although it has done little to stamp out corruption. It is easy to see why there has been relative inaction - bribery is rampant among officials. Any party meeting, no matter how senior, has found reason to sideline the issue. Officials clearly have more to lose than gain by forcing themselves to publicly declare their holdings.

This is despite many other governments having long ago realised that the only path to peaceful and prosperous development is through transparency and openness. They found that rules requiring officials to register their property in their own names and declare assets when taking office are a fundamental weapon in fighting corruption. Sweden pioneered this almost 300 years ago and Britain was the first to enshrine it in law in 1883. Former South Korean president Kim Young-sam took the lead in Asia, revealing his personal assets in 1993 and later requiring all government officials to make public their financial records. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and India are among those that have followed suit.

The mainland has laws governing the declaration of property. Since 1995, regulations have been enacted requiring leaders to reveal their major assets, and for officials above the county and provincial levels to make known their personal and family property holdings. Pilot schemes in which all officials declare a range of assets are under way in several cities. But the measures fail through a lack of commitment; the scope is small, publication of details limited, media scrutiny rudimentary and there is no timetable for wider adoption. It must be remembered that the party is above the law.

Asset disclosure is a vital tool in fighting corruption. There is no better way for an official to declare his or her honesty and fitness to administer. There are also wider benefits: the legitimacy of the government is enhanced in public eyes; political systems are opened; and foreign direct investment is stimulated. To not embrace the idea is the height of misgovernment.

Beijing's international acceptance depends on its ability to govern effectively. That is clearly not going to happen while corruption remains rampant. Nor will public discontent lessen as long as party officials are seen to be using their power to enrich themselves. The nation's leaders have an opportunity to make amends. They must use their next top-level meeting to implement a far-reaching policy of disclosure - starting with declaring their own assets.