Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign

New anti-graft rules in Shanghai bring China a step closer to clean government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 1:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 8:17am

For all the high-profile arrests and investigations in President Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption, a measure being rolled out now could prove one of the most important. On Xi's reported direction to city administrators, Shanghai is introducing pilot measures to limit the business activities of senior officials' families. This addresses growing public anger over the unearned rewards reaped by spouses and children of corrupt powerful officials.

That Beijing has chosen one of China's largest cities to launch this experiment in clean government is seen as a significant move that could be expanded nationwide. The regulation bans spouses of top municipal officials and bosses of the city's state enterprises from doing any kind of business, or taking employment as senior staff of local private companies or foreign firms. Similar restrictions on children and family members apply only to Shanghai or areas that have direct conflict of interest with the officials' department or enterprise. In addition officials must declare the employment status of close family members.

It is common for relatives of officials in powerful positions to open businesses or hold shares in businesses the officials are responsible for overseeing, making them inviting targets for bribery. We agree with some critics who say the measures have not gone far enough. But it is a step in the right direction, given that in the cases of many disgraced officials arrested so far spouses, children or family have taken bribes in return for using their connection to help close deals, while the official pretends to be clean.

This form of corruption is like a family network aimed at helping children that is not unheard of in other countries, where it is more likely to be kept in check by accountability, transparency and the watchdog role of the media. In China it has been taken to extremes. It may seem an abuse of the rights of spouses and children to ban them from doing anything, but at this stage of the country's development, it is the right thing to do.

That said, the measures are still only treating symptoms rather than causes. Officials have too much power without checks and balances which would address the causes. Eventually there has to be more transparency, including a requirement that officials disclose their assets. Expanding the latest restrictions nationwide would help bring that day closer.