Hopes that China's new leadership will crack down on corruption by forcing officials to disclose their assets appear to be in limbo, with no officials at a recent meeting of graft-busters backing such a move.
At the latest plenary meeting of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in late February, attended by more than 200 anti-graft officials from around the nation, no one voiced support for the introduction of a national system requiring party officials to disclose their assets, a person at the meeting said.
"Many of the speakers at the meeting believed such a plan was impossible under the current circumstances," the source said.
Public outrage at opaque government operations and the hidden wealth of party officials has been simmering for some time. Many Chinese believe government corruption threatens social stability and that an assets disclosure system is key to tackling graft.
However, the source said a CCDI official, who had done a series of interviews with Guangdong officials, had warned his colleagues that the disclosure of officials' assets could lead to social unrest.
"He said that every official that he had talked to had an impressive amount of assets, and to publicise any of them would lead to public anger," the source said, adding that CCDI deputy secretary Zhao Hongzhu heard the remarks but did not comment.
After the meeting, Xinhua released the text of a speech by Wang Qishan , CCDI's head. Wang said Beijing was accelerating the drafting of a national anti-corruption law and would strengthen the supervision of civil servants with relatives living abroad.
The new leadership has said that fighting graft is among its priorities, with President Xi Jinping saying that government corruption is a threat to the party's legitimacy. He promised to target both high- and low-ranking corrupt officials.
But some doubt Beijing's sincerity in fighting corruption. Wang, known as a hardliner, said in January that the fight against graft had to deal with the symptoms initially in order to buy time to devise a long-term, systematic approach to addressing the root of the problem.
Many people had hoped that a new law requiring the disclosure of officials' assets would be introduced at last month's annual meeting of the National People's Congress, but that did not happen.
Meanwhile, three media sources told the South China Morning Post that the mainland media had received a gag order before the meeting from Liu Qibao , the party's top propaganda official. It banned them from asking questions about asset disclosure.
A senior producer with a major mainland television station, who read the gag order, said Liu asked the media to strictly follow the party's line. Liu reportedly said that "public disclosure has nothing to do with media and they should not bother about it any more".
Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan said the main reason the curtains had been drawn on the push for assets disclosure was that it could undermine the legitimacy of the party's grip on power.
"If the new leaders push party officials to give up the privileges of power too quickly, they also face the risk of losing support within the party," Zhang said, adding that no individual was clean in a rotten system.
A Bloomberg investigation last year said that many of Xi's relatives had gained from their association with him, accumulating some US$376 million in assets. But there is no indication that Xi had personally intervened to advance their business interests.
Du Guang , a retired professor at the Central Party School, said mainlanders had grown accustomed to ineffectual anti-graft campaigns, but they were now more determined to hold the government to account.
As such, they would lose confidence in the party if the top leaders fail to make progress on the disclosure of officials' assets, Du said.
"I am a bit disappointed now," Du said. "I have the feeling that without concrete steps, any anti-corruption pledges amount to lip service."
However, Xia Jiajun, a former member of the NPC's standing committee, said President Xi's leadership team was still new and that the public need to be more patient in waiting for changes.
"I still believe this government is sincere in wanting to fight graft, but it is still too early to make judgments," Xia said.