Officials' wealth displays scrutinised

Flashy possessions shine light on possible graft, but transparency on salaries is lacking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 2:37am

The intolerable level of corruption across the country has been questioned more frequently lately after mainland media noted countless senior officials who appear to own assets they could not possibly afford on their salaries.

On Wednesday, internet users claimed that a high-ranking official in Fujian had stopped a newspaper publishing a story exposing his luxurious lifestyle. The City Times had been planning to run a story accusing Li Dejin, head of the province's transport department, of wearing a watch worth 50,000 yuan (HK$61,500) and a belt worth 15,000 yuan.

No Fujian officials have confirmed that the online speculation was true, but the report sparked widespread discussion because a similar case recently brought down Yang Dacai, the director of Shaanxi's provincial work safety bureau, who was caught wearing a succession of expensive watches.

All this is occurring against the backdrop of increasing calls for the central government to order the regular publication of all officials' assets.

"We can still remember the Shaanxi watch-wearing brother's happy countenance, and now we are welcoming this watch-wearing uncle from Fujian," Henan's Orient Today said, mockingly, adding they were all "fine-looking men".

With an increasing number of officials being caught out for living beyond their means, the China Youth Daily said in an editorial that "publicising officials' assets is a way to save officials' legal property". The article said it was very hard to decide whether an official was corrupt solely by looking at the assets he owned, and that "as long as the officials make their assets more transparent to the public and can prove their money was obtained legally, they could buy 210 properties".

"The problem is whether the officials can make a fair explanation about their considerable personal assets," it said. "If they don't want to publicise them themselves, then internet users will help them to do the audit reviews. In the future there will be more reviews like this."

The Chengdu Economic Daily echoed that sentiment, while adding that civil servants' salaries had risen nine times since 1985. "The key problem behind the anger over luxury watches was the opacity of the officials' income," it said. "The public has no other way to access information about how much the civil servant gets paid, so they can only discover that from the photos online."

That's probably why the Chongqing Times adopted a more depressing tone, while other media celebrate the successful exposure of corrupt officials. It said that although a simple watch could reveal the hidden corruption of some greedy officials, it was not the ultimate solution.

"If officials learn from these cases and from now on get better at hiding their wealth, are they going to be safe forever? What if they don't wear luxury watches and no longer smoke fine cigarettes? A sustainable system is needed to monitor the whereabouts of officials' families and assets," the paper said.

Still, some papers were more encouraging. In an editorial on Thursday, the Guangming Daily, a relatively liberal newspaper for intellectuals run by the Communist Party's Central Committee, urged Beijing to launch an asset registration system as soon as possible.

The Nanfang Daily, a paper owned by Guangdong's propaganda department, extended the topic to political reforms.

"Reform has always been tough, but people should be happy that recently there are more changes happening," the paper said. But it didn't want to go too far, with the Communist Party's 18th national congress less than a month away.

"Reform needs to be pushed forward step by step … media should provide positive guidance of public opinion on reform … which could encourage them to move forward little by little."