18th Party Congress

Party officials' finances will remain a dirty secret, analysts predict

Corruption is so rife that 'everyone would be implicated' if Beijing demanded asset disclosure

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 4:49am

Despite increasing calls for officials to reveal their personal assets, the central government is unlikely to mandate public disclosure for fear that most cadres would be found to have ill-gotten wealth, analysts said.

Disclosure of officials' assets has been discussed since at least 1994, when the idea was first proposed at the National People's Congress. But calls for their disclosure have recently risen to a fever pitch in the wake of a series of scandals and media reports that have raised questions about the huge fortunes amassed by party leaders.

Many officials, including disgraced former Politburo member Bo Xilai , have been exposed by the party's own disciplinary apparatus. Overseas media investigations into the family fortunes of the most powerful leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao and incoming president Xi Jinping , have fed the perception that more disclosure is needed.

The pressure has become so great that Shanghai party chief Yu Zhengsheng - tipped to ascend to the Politburo's elite Standing Committee - told reporters on the sidelines of the 18th party congress last week that he would be happy to publicly disclose his personal assets if the central government required it.

Meanwhile, his Guangdong counterpart, Wang Yang , who is generally viewed as being among the party's more reform-minded members, said that he was exploring ways to require disclosure at the provincial level.

Still, experts such as retired official Yao Jianfu said it was extremely unlikely that the party would subject its tens of millions of cadres to such public scrutiny. The problem is that corruption is so pervasive, everyone would be implicated.

"If they declared their assets, they would all end up in jail - that's impossible," Yao said. "If they were willing to sacrifice their cadres, they would win the support of the people, but I guess they won't want to sacrifice their own people."

But ordinary people are growing impatient. Outrage over the conspicuous wealth of officials, many of whom own multiple properties and flashy cars and keep mistresses, grows with each passing scandal.

Last month, Cai Bin , a Guangzhou district official, was found to own 22 properties valued at more than 35.5 million yuan (HK$43.65 million), despite a monthly income of just 10,000 yuan. Cai, his wife and their son owned nine shops, six flats, two factories and a luxury villa.

In September, a Shaanxi province work-safety official was disciplined after internet users posted pictures showing him wearing numerous luxury watches worth as much as 35,000 yuan.

To the public, these reports serve as a reminder corruption has permeated all levels of the Communist Party bureaucracy.

In 2009, several local governments, including Aletai in Xinjiang and Liuyang in Hunan , launched experiments with disclosing officials' assets. Some put information on government websites; others used interior bulletins.

The disclosure schemes resulted in no corruption complaints and were quietly shelved after a couple of years.

The government already has a disclosure system of sorts - officials above the sub-county level are required to report their assets to disciplinary organs - but the declarations are kept confidential. Experts say greater disclosure would put many officials in an untenable position.

"The problem is, once you declare your assets and they don't match your income, you can be charged with 'the possession of a large amount of assets from unexplained sources'," Yao said.

Hong Kong-based political commentator Yuen Kee-wang said mandatory declaration was no panacea. There must also be a measure to verify cadres' claims, he said, and many might try to hide their assets by transferring them to relatives or abroad.

Moreover, corruption had become so widespread that few if any officials could be shown to have clean hands, Yuen said.

"When there is corruption at every level of the government, and you try to stay out, you will antagonise your peers, your superiors and your subordinates."

In addition to asset disclosure, University of Hong Kong sociology professor Lui Tai-lok said cleaning up corruption would also require a free press, the rule of law and agencies empowered to independently pursue graft cases.

"It depends on whether there is an open and transparent society. If the media cannot follow up and there is no other channel to see through the cases, disclosure isn't very meaningful."