A new year, a more open style of governance beckons in China

Hu Shuli welcomes reports detailing the profiles of state leaders as a move towards the eventual aim of subjecting politics to public scrutiny

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 5:44am


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For three days in the last week of 2012, Xinhua published a series of reports profiling new Communist Party leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, and the five other members of the Politburo Standing Committee. The reports talked about their careers and governance style, revealed their hobbies, and even included old photos of them at work and named their family members. In the feature on Xi, there were even stories or recent updates about his late father Xi Zhongxun, mother Qi Xin and wife Peng Liyuan. Even his daughter Xi Mingze was named.

It was the first time in decades that a government mouthpiece had reported in detail the personal information and family life of central party leaders. Not long ago, the Politburo released guidelines urging leaders to make their working style more transparent and personable; no doubt this series of reports was a step in the right direction. We can only hope that the next step involves the disclosure of the leaders' individual and family assets.

The party today is facing severe tests, as the report of its 18th national congress makes clear. It has to overcome challenges in governance, foreign policy and the economy, not to mention its reform drive. At the same time, it has to fight the threat of inertia, incompetence, disconnection with the people, and corruption.

The people are losing faith in the government, not only because officials have failed to honour what they had promised, but also because their abuse of power has become so rampant. The Bo Xilai case and the recent sex and corruption scandals bring home the point.

The people now expect their new leaders to roll out effective measures to curb corruption and fossilised bureaucratic thinking and practices. The leaders know it too. This is why when China's new Politburo members met the press recently, Xi Jinping firmly said that it was time for the party to wake up to the problems.

One way to overcome the tests of today is to draw lessons from the past. And the Xinhua reports show that many of the Politburo Standing Committee members saw themselves as upholding the party's moral traditions. Xi, for one, is known to have cautioned his friends and relatives about using his name to win favour from others: "No one can engage in any business activity at my workplace or do anything using my name; I won't look kindly on any errant behaviour even if you are family."

Zhang Gaoli, the former Tianjing party secretary and current Politburo Standing Committee member, has also said publicly that if anyone were to receive a request for a favour using his name, that person "should not entertain the request, should not give face, and approve nothing".

But just as trust can't replace supervision, morals are no substitute for rules. The 18th congress report called for transparency in the exercise of powers, based on clearly defined rules, specifically in governance, party business and the operations of the judiciary. "Power must be subject to the people's scrutiny," the report says, "and exercised in the sunshine." Actual measures must be taken to implement this, or it will just be empty talk.

The Xinhua reports are a practical step towards the goal of transparency, but the most important factor for success is a good institutional set-up. In most parts of the world, politicians are open about themselves and their family members, used to engaging with the public, and accept media scrutiny as part of their job.

In China, however, the personal and family information of state leaders are regarded as state secrets and their deliberate low-key style in dealing with their personal matters is considered a virtue. These attitudes must change if China is to become a modern democratic country.

Building on the Xinhua reports, party leaders and senior government officials should meet the media more frequently and directly, so that we move away from having a single version of a story released through official propaganda channels. And once the nation's top leaders have made the first steps, other senior government officials should follow; they should be open with the media about all matters of public interest.

No doubt, public figures have a right to privacy. But in the case of government leaders, their work, speech and behaviour invariably affect the public interest. Therefore, while they enjoy the power and status that come with the job, they should also be prepared to trade off part of their right to privacy for the public's right to know. This is widely accepted in a mature country with the rule of law.

China needs to set up a system that makes the disclosure of assets by government officials the norm.

At present, the majority of countries worldwide have laws requiring their government leaders and cabinet members to disclose their assets.

Even Russia has, since 2008, required its officials to declare their assets. Further, the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, passed a bill last December prohibiting government officials from owning real estate and/or bank accounts in other countries. China's National People's Congress should legislate for the Sunshine Act as early as possible.

The new governing style of China's new leaders is a breath of fresh air. As we bid farewell to 2012, we look forward to a 2013 full of sunshine.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine. www.caing.com