China can best tackle corruption with a sunshine law

Hu Shuli says the government should turn its resolve into action - by enacting legislation to force officials to disclose their income and assets

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 3:13am

A new resolve to crack down on corruption is in the air. Since the 18th Communist Party congress, a number of senior officials have been accused of corruption and sacked. This includes the Sichuan deputy party secretary Li Chuncheng , who was promoted only last month to be a non-voting member of the party's Central Committee. An anti-corruption campaign led by web users is also gaining support. The government's zero-tolerance attitude is winning praise, and it should seize the momentum to systematise its clean-up.

The corruption cancer affects the whole world, but it is particularly serious in China. As party leaders have often conceded, corruption is endemic and tackling it is a huge challenge. But the scale of the problem also means improvements are within easy reach: China could simply adopt some of the basic practices that have proved useful elsewhere. In particular, it should institute a sunshine law that requires officials to disclose their wealth.

Such a law is not hard to enforce; all that's needed is political will. As many as 137 countries already have such a law, according to the World Bank. Just this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said all government officials, from himself and the prime minister down, and their family members would have to declare their spending.

China has considered requiring party officials to disclose their assets since the 1980s. The proposal was introduced in 1995, and has gone through four revisions, the latest one in 2010. However, the requirements have remained regulations set by the Central Committee and the State Council, and the disclosure will circulate only within the party. Some 20 cities have also experimented with introducing such rules since 2009, but they can't go far without full government support.

The introduction of a sunshine law enjoys wide public approval, and would be a major step forward in the fight against corruption. The government must put it on the legislative agenda of the National People's Congress.

Corruption is an outcome of the unholy mix of power and money. The proper exercise of power is the key to curbing corruption. In a society governed by the rule of law, a gain in political power does not - and should not - come with a gain in wealth. But that is not how it is in China; power and money have become inextricably linked in its bureaucratic culture.

China set out in the 1990s to build a socialist market economy, but the transition has been slow. The government's heavy hand in the market created many opportunities for rent-seeking. Meanwhile, political reforms have dragged on, and there is little oversight of office-holders. Inevitably corruption has grown rife, exacerbated by globalisation.

The challenge is daunting. But China can start with the basics. First it must eradicate the conditions that breed corruption. This means improving its market and legal systems through comprehensive reform, to facilitate China's transformation into a modern nation. This means abiding by the rule of law, and instituting a system that effectively targets corruption. This includes the features of a sunshine law, robust public and media scrutiny and an independent judiciary.

China may also learn from other regions. One useful tool would be an independent commission against corruption that originated in the Swedish institution of a parliamentary ombudsman. But this is different from the system of spies and informers deployed by the Chinese emperors of old. An anti-corruption bureau, though it also reports to the top leaders, is built on modern legal principles and operates strictly within the law. While the ancient Chinese court system degrades human relations, a modern anti-corruption agency builds trust.

In China today, the calls for such an independent bureau are growing louder. Given that the NPC is the highest organ of state power, perhaps a more appropriate example for China to follow would be the Swedish ombudsman system.

The anti-corruption bureau in the mainland's public prosecution system is somewhat similar in mission and design to Hong Kong's ICAC. But the former is limited by its lack of independence.

In a mature legal system, the state's power to investigate and prosecute is separate from the power of the judiciary. China's public prosecution system itself, which has its origins in the Soviet model, is controversial and its future development is uncertain. It is better to have an independent body to fight corruption.

For the longer term, China must work towards having an independent judiciary, which is the key to rooting out corruption. The Roman republic instituted first plebian tribunes, then layers of ombudsmen, judiciary officers and adjudicators, to check the powers of the government. But the system became so complicated that its military command fell into disarray and the republic collapsed. This is a lesson to heed. Through trial and error over the years, we now have the principle of the separation of powers, first articulated by the French political thinker Montesquieu. Judicial independence is a crucial link.

China today is grappling with complex issues, but the problem at heart is quite simple. The fight against corruption depends on the rule of law. Without it, it's all empty talk.




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