A fundamental weapon in the fight against corruption in high places is public disclosure of officials' household assets. If enshrined in law, strictly adhered to and properly administered, there will be less chance of corrupt practices and greater accountability and transparency. Above all, for a government, it is a foundation for building trust. With the leaders of the US and Russia having recently released their tax reports and France's ministers revealing their wealth, China's lack of such a requirement is starkly prominent.
Corruption is one of China's biggest scourges. President Xi Jinping has rightly made its eradication a priority. Yet, after two decades of discussion at National People's Congress level, there has been limited progress. Asset disclosure requirements remain regulations set by the Communist Party and State Council and reports receive only internal scrutiny.
Implementation is being held back by reluctance; in all countries, revealing income and personal assets is a sensitive matter. On the mainland, though, there is the added problem of corruption being so rampant that the party fears mandatory disclosure could further damage its image and legitimacy. There was no support for a national system at its last plenary meeting of anti-graft officials. All manner of reasons have been given, from technical to personal to political. Nor, given the poor manner in which those agitating for measures are treated, would it seem there will be progress any time soon. Outrageously, activists, lawyers among them, were again detained in Beijing yesterday for simply calling for disclosure.
But continuing to ignore the growing clamour is not an option. A series of scandals in recent months has revealed some officials have amassed huge fortunes. Among them was Guangzhou urban management officer Cai Bin, who was found to have 22 properties valued at more than 35.5 million yuan, despite having a monthly income of just 10,000 yuan. Foreign media claims last year that the families of top leaders, Wen Jiabao's prominent among them, have also acquired great wealth, have exacerbated pressure for change. Concern about rising prices and the income gap do not help.
A mechanism for asset declaration has to cover not just civil servants and officials, but also spouses and children. Ignoring the calls will only increase distrust. Leadership from the top is needed; the Politburo Standing Committee's seven members should get the process moving by making full declarations.