National People's Congress

Disclosing assets of mainland elites too big a gamble, analysts say

System is so corrupt that exposing the wealth of officials could topple the regime, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2013, 5:01am

At the past seven annual meetings of the National People's Congress, lawyer Han Deyun repeatedly called for legislation requiring officials to declare their personal assets.

"There is no law at all on the disclosure of assets at the moment," said the NPC deputy from Chongqing . "We need to make it a legal obligation, otherwise our civil servants will ask 'why should I'?"

Public calls for the disclosure of officials' assets have reached fever pitch in the past few months in the wake of a spate of scandals that revealed the huge fortunes amassed by officials.

First, there was Cai Bin - a Guangzhou urban management official nicknamed "House Uncle" by internet users - who was found to own 22 properties valued at more than 35.5 million yuan (HK$43.65 million) despite having a monthly income of just 10,000 yuan. He was sacked in October.

Then there was "Uncle Watch" Yang Dacai - a Shaanxi province work-safety official who was disciplined in September after internet users posted pictures showing him wearing luxury watches worth as much as 35,000 yuan. He was expelled from the Communist Party this month and his case has been referred to prosecutors.

And shortly before the Lunar New Year, "House Sister" Gong Aiai , a deputy head of a bank in Shaanxi, was arrested for forging official documents. Media reports say she used fake identities to buy 41 properties in Beijing.

Last year's overseas news reports of the family fortunes of the country's top leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao and party chief Xi Jinping , have also added momentum to the call for more transparency.

Amid rapid inflation and a widening income gap, public discontent over the wealth of officials, many of whom own multiple properties and flashy cars and keep mistresses, is growing increasingly vocal. Many are now placing their hopes in a new law on the disclosure of officials' assets at next month's NPC meeting.

"The antagonism between officials and ordinary people has reached an unprecedented level, that's why society is demanding new measures," Han said.

The mainland has considered requiring party officials to disclose their assets since the 1980s. A proposal was first discussed at the NPC in 1994, but disclosure requirements remain regulations set by the Communist Party and the State Council, with reports for internal scrutiny only. Despite the growing pressure, analysts say legislation for mandatory disclosure of assets is unlikely to happen soon. They say corruption is too widespread among officials and the party fears mandatory disclosure of assets will make too many heads roll and further damage the party's image and legitimacy.

"Disclosure of assets would shake-up the upper echelons of power in a big way," said political commentator Zhang Lifan . "It's a tug of war between the authorities and ordinary people, and between the central and local authorities."

Since Xi took the helm of the Communist Party in November, he has made repeated calls for a renewed fight against corruption, vowing to target both "tigers and flies" - high and low-ranking officials.

But Zhang said Xi had encountered strong resistance from local governments.

Last week, several mainland cities prohibited members of the public from searching property registries - a tool they could use to expose officials' wealth. Zhang said the bans were part of an effort by lower-level governments to resist Xi's anti-graft drive.

"The whole system is so corrupt, if it [mandatory disclosure] is implemented, it would lead to the collapse of the ruling regime," he said.

Zhang said the political elites' vested interests were so entrenched in a corrupt system that it would be "a major test" for Xi to prove he had the courage to tackle rampant corruption across the board.

Chen Ziming , an independent political analyst, said while a requirement to disclose officials' wealth would pose a huge challenge for the leadership, the mounting pressure from ordinary people could not be ignored either.

"People have put a lot of hopes in new leadership … and they are not so patient with Xi, they want him to do something concrete," Chen said.

He said that even if enacting such legislation triggered the dismissal of large numbers of corrupt officials, the government must still accept the challenge and heed the public's call. "The pressure from the people is getting stronger, they cannot afford not to respond," he said.

Wang Quanjie , a former NPC deputy who proposed such legislation at many past congresses, said asset disclosure was a necessary step to maintain the credibility of the regime.

Despite the high risk, crises could be catalysts for social progress, he said.