Mainland authorities blocked access to The New York Times website hours after publication of an investigative report about assets accumulated by the family of Premier Wen Jiabao, reprinted in this newspaper today. To contain any leakage, they also blocked mentions of Wen or the Times on microblogs.
Less than two weeks before the 18th national congress of the Communist Party and a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the blackout is not surprising, given that stability is a party watchword at a politically sensitive time.
Such a report, about a man promoted as the "people's premier", could come as a bombshell to mainlanders in the wake of the corruption scandal surrounding disgraced politician Bo Xilai. But the blackout is not exceptional. Recently, the authorities blocked the Bloomberg News website after a report about the assets of the extended family of president-in-waiting Xi Jinping.
There have, in fact, been many domestic reports of corruption involving top families. How long can the government cover up its failure to confront a potentially explosive issue by blocking overseas websites? It is now 18 years since a call was made to the National People's Congress for mainland leaders to disclose their personal assets as a safeguard against conflicts of interest and official corruption. The longer the issue is allowed to fester, the harder it will be to bring it out into the open. There will never be a better time to do it than the accession of new leaders. In this respect the taboo on discussion of the lives of state leaders is counterproductive. The new leaders should muster the political courage to lift the veil of secrecy and instigate a register of transparent declarations of assets by senior officials. This is international practice and an effective safeguard against corruption. After all, top leaders have repeatedly warned that the party's political legitimacy is linked to the fight against corruption.
Wealth does not bar people from rendering valuable public service in government. What sets many officials apart is that they prospered after reforms unleashed state capitalism. That is not to say they did anything wrong. But it would do nothing to enhance China's achievements if "socialism with Chinese characteristics" came to be associated in the public mind with the enrichment of the elite through patronage and rent-seeking. That is why more transparency is urgently needed.