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Column
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 7:34am

Apathy, distrust, slows efforts to force asset disclosure in a Jiangsu district

A district in Jiangsu is held up as an example in the fight against graft, but its efforts are hampered by apathy and cynicism

BIO

Alice Yan works in the South China Morning Post Shanghai bureau as a medical reporter and also covers social news in Shanghai and other Yangtze River Delta regions. She joined the Post in April of 2010 and before that she worked in the marketing department of KPMG Shanghai office for two years. She started her journalism career in the Post’s Beijing bureau in 2003 as a translator and news assistant. Yan has a bachelor’s degree in economics.
 

With calls for mainland officials to disclose their assets practically ignored, one city in Jiangsu has hit the headlines, being hailed by the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily as evidence of the authorities' determination to curb corruption.

However, the efforts of a district in Xuzhou to force public officials to declare assets were only moderately successful, showing the obstacles mainland officials face in improving transparency.

Asset declaration is a basic anti-corruption strategy in the West that also appeals to the average mainlander. Still, it has met enormous resistance north of the border, especially from leading officials. It was first proposed at an annual session of the National People's Congress in the mid-1990s, but there has been little progress since.

Over the past three years, some small cities in Xinjiang , Zhejiang , Sichuan and Hunan have ordered officials to disclose their assets, but not publicly and only if they are being promoted.

However, the district of Jiawang in Xuzhou went a step further this year when, in a mainland first, it asked all 600 of its mid-level officials to divulge their assets to the public.

They were told to list their real estate holdings, income, investments, cars and the employment status of their spouses and children, with the details to be posted on the publicly accessible website of the anti-corruption watchdog in the district, Nanjing's Xinhua Daily reported.

However, it has not been all that straightforward.

Top officials, including the district's director and party chief, are not covered by the order and, according to the Beijing Times, only 425 officials had declared their assets.

Only one official, the deputy director of the district's finance bureau, admitted to owning three houses, with nearly 70 per cent saying they owned only one. Fifteen per cent said they owned two and the remainder said they had no property.

The International Finance News reported that, bizarrely, the incomes declared by some officials exceeded those of their superiors.

What's more, some of the disclosures posted online are just plain untrue. Xinhua Daily quoted one official as saying that his boss owned more than one house and had a car, but the listing on the website claimed that he owned only one house and did not have a car. The subordinate said he would be "stupid" to blow the whistle, and it was really "none of his business".

The director of the district's Discipline Inspection Committee, Zhang Qiuyue , admitted that assets had been covered up and the information submitted by the official had not been verified because the committee lacked the resources to do the job.

Jiawang's reform efforts have failed to make waves in the local community; most residents are simply unaware of it.

It's no wonder that, as China Youth Daily reports, there hasn't been a single tip-off over the past eight months about any official cheating in their assets declaration.

Professor Hu Wei , dean of Shanghai Jiao Tong University's school of international and public affairs, said the lack of such tip-offs reflected the public's distrust of the asset declaration scheme.

He said mainlanders had grown numb to official corruption and believed it was pervasive among governments at all levels.

"People aren't interested in cases where officials embezzle a modest amount of public funds. Only cases involving a huge amount of money can raise people's eyebrows," Hu said, citing a case in which a Liaoning official fled overseas with 200 million yuan (HK$245 million) in ill-gotten gains.

Asset disclosure requirements had not been widely implemented, Hu said, because the central authorities dare not to, fearing the true picture of officials' assets would trigger "severe social turbulence".

At least two people in Guangzhou were detained in May for publicly calling on President Hu Jintao to declare his personal assets.

Even if many more places follow Jiawang's example, the system will essentially be toothless and pointless until civil society as a whole and the media can provide checks and balances on abuse of power by officials.

ting.yan@scmp.com

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