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  • Aug 29, 2014
  • Updated: 2:24pm

Nothing to declare?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2012, 12:00am

The extent of Bo Xilai 's business interests, now becoming ever more apparent in the aftermath of his downfall, has given new weight to calls for the mainland's leaders to disclose their assets.

Demands for regulations obliging leaders to do so have been made frequently since this was first proposed at the National People's Congress in 1994, but reformers have made little headway. Party officials, it appears, are unwilling to threaten their own vested interests.

But, particularly since the detention of Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai, the issue has become more urgent, with some observers saying the Communist Party's failure to curb the corruption rampant at many levels of government may lead to the nation's destruction.

The biggest obstacle to introducing anti-corruption regulations has come from the top leadership, according to Professor Wang Yukai , an anti-corruption expert at the Chinese Academy of Governance (previously known as the China National School of Administration) in Beijing.

Reform shouldn't be difficult to accomplish, he said. A good start would be for China's next president and premier to lead by example.

'If, after the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang begin to disclose their own assets, there will be no reason why it can't be followed by officials below,' Wang said. 'It's a question of resolve, not a question of technique.'

Although the government has cracked down harder on corruption in recent years, it has made little progress in making it mandatory for public officials to publicly disclose their personal assets. But such a step is seen as a basic anti-corruption strategy.

Last month, the World Bank called for nations everywhere to strengthen financial-disclosure requirements. 'Citizens want officials to be honest about their income and assets, to ensure that they are not looting the public coffers or accumulating ill-gotten wealth,' said Jean Pesme, the manager of the World Bank's financial-market integrity group. 'This helps build a climate of integrity and trust towards senior public officials.'

China does have a disclosure system of sorts: officials above the sub-county level report assets to disciplinary organs, but these declarations are kept within the party.

According to regulations drafted in 1997 and amended in 2006 and 2010, officials are required to report on their personal incomes, the employment status of their children and spouses, and their property interests and investments.

Last week, Premier Wen Jiabao wrote in the Communist Party magazine Seeking Truth that the government was considering requiring declarations of 'a certain scale' of people, without specifying what scale that might be.

In September, Wen told the Davos Forum that China should work to turn those requirements into a real system of public disclosure. Last February, he told internet users during an online chat that the government was actively preparing for such a mechanism and corresponding regulations. But no real progress has been made so far.

Chen Yongmiao, a Beijing-based political analyst, said that since the disclosures now made by Chinese officials weren't made known to the public, they only served as a way for more senior officials to control their underlings.

Without thorough political reform, expect little progress on accessing officials' financial information, Chen said. That was 'because the current ruling party itself was founded on robbing the public, so it would be impossible for it to disclose what it has stolen'.

According to Chen, top party leaders have robbed the citizenry since the People's Republic was founded, putting farmers' land into state ownership in the 1950s, killing private capital later, and embezzling public funds by giving and taking bribes today.

Despite Wen's talk of a timetable for creating the reform, Wu Yuliang ,deputy secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said last June that no schedule had been put in place. He went on to disparage the usefulness of the reform itself, saying officials would simply file false information.

'On the one hand, you couldn't trust the figures they declared, and on the other, related departments couldn't check their validity,' he told a press conference.

But Wang Quanjie, a professor at Yantai University, said all 'technical problems' were solvable.

'To say it's difficult to get and assess statistics is just as ridiculous as saying that there's no way to install more voting machines in a hall, so it's therefore impossible to allow more people to vote.'

Wang Quanjie was a deputy to the National People's Congress between 2003 and 2007. In each of those years, he called for the public disclosure of officials' assets. He got nowhere.

The official objection was the alleged difficulty of collecting and assessing data - all too believable, given the general lack of honesty in today's society. But Wang believes the real reason was officials' reluctance to confront serious corruption within the party. He says Beijing missed two good opportunities to kickstart reform if they'd wanted to - one back in the 1990s, when corruption was not that serious, and the other eight years ago, when a civil servants law was drafted and passed.

'In the future, the interest chain will only become longer and more officials will be entangled, making disclosing personal assets more difficult,' Wang said.

In 2009, several local municipal governments, including Aletai in Xinjiang and Cixi in Zhejiang , started high-profile experiments with disclosing officials' assets, with some putting such information on government websites and others on interior bulletins. But few other areas followed their lead. More importantly, central authorities failed to applaud, or even acknowledge, the effort.

'If the central government had advertised Aletai, as it has done with [party hero] Lei Feng , I see no reason why the mechanism could not have spread to other areas,' Wang said.

Wang proposed that some compromise requirement be put in place to get the mechanism going, and that more complete disclosure be sought later. 'For example, instead of all officials, we could start with newly elected or appointed officials. Or we could start with officials above provincial level, or central leaders.'

Wang Yukai, the professor from the school of governance, said experiments by local government were doomed if the top leadership did not show their support. 'In countries where a true asset-declaration mechanism exists, top leaders traditionally take the lead in disclosing their financial status,' he said.

He agreed declarations could be small-scale at first - applying to newly appointed cadres, for instance, and gradually expanding to lower level officials. 'Another option is that we could also set an upper limit on assets for officials at a certain level. The assets above this line would be put into state ownership, and no liability would be pursued for this part.'

91%

The share of mainlanders who believe that all rich families have political backgrounds, according to a People's Daily poll in 2010

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