Action needed on graft and economy

In a new year wish list, leaders should publicly declare their assets, introduce reforms to boost growth and rein in bureaucratic red tape

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 5:37am

For the nation's new leaders who came to power last month, the year ahead is critical for them to show a willingness to start afresh and establish their authority. This probably means they will have to set some tough and ambitious goals.

More importantly, the next year will have to be one of action for them after making some tantalising pledges over the past two months.

Accelerating legislative efforts to introduce a so-called sunshine law to force officials and their immediate relatives to declare their assets will have to be one of the top priorities.

On the day that Xi Jinping took over as party chief, he vowed to fight corruption, which he said could doom the Communist Party and the state.

Since then, several officials have been sacked and detained for corruption in what state media says has been a crackdown on graft.

However, even as the leaders have admitted that official corruption is rampant and systemic, one intense campaign is unlikely to have any noticeable impact.

It is time for them to deliver a dose of heavy medicine, including introducing a sunshine law as part of efforts to boost transparency and accountability.

To achieve this goal, the mainland's top leaders, particularly the seven Politburo Standing Committee members who include Xi, must take the lead to publicly declare their assets and those of their immediate family members.

It is not only because they need to set an example, but because questions over their own family wealth are in the spotlight following a series of articles by mainstream overseas media implicating family members of Xi, Premier Wen Jiabao and other leaders.

There are tentative signs that the country's top leaders are prepared to act.

Recently, Xinhua uncharacteristically released lengthy profiles of the top seven leaders, including old photos of themselves and their family members, prompting speculation that this might be the first step in paving the way for the introduction of a sunshine law.

At the weekend, a statement released at the end of a National People's Congress Standing Committee session said that the legislative body would step up efforts to draft relevant anti-corruption laws.

As well, the leaders must not waste any time in undertaking major reforms to put the economy back on track at a time when China's traditional engines of growth - exports and government spending - are faltering.

Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang has rightly identified urbanisation as one major growth engine to power the country's economy forward as nearly 300 million farmers need to move into the cities.

This will require massive investment, not only in infrastructure but also in boosting a social security network that includes medical care, pensions, education and housing.

To make it happen, the leaders should immediately tackle the wretched household registration system - known as hukou - which has long separated urbanites and farmers.

The hukou has denied farmers proper access to education, medical care and housing in the cities.

This has contributed to an ever widening gap in living standards between the rich and poor, which has become a key source of social discontent.

But for any reform to move forward, the leaders must tackle the vast government bureaucracy and the major state-run conglomerates, which have become the biggest stumbling block to change.

During the 10-year reign of President Hu Jintao and Wen, state control over the economy has become tighter, strengthening the state monopoly of key industries. But this has also given officials room to seek profits for themselves.

When Li first became a Politburo Standing Committee member five years ago, he took on the difficult task of streamlining the bureaucracy by merging some ministries to reduce their control, but he made little progress. Now he has become the country's No2 leader and is slated to become the country's premier in March.

It is time for him to use that higher authority to take on those powerful ministries and the conglomerates.

Reversing the momentum of "the state advances, while the private sector retreats" policy will go a long way to boosting domestic consumption and put the mainland's growth on a healthy course.