China’s fight against the rampant problem of corruption has long lacked a tool that many believe could help shine a light on graft: a requirement from the central government that officials publicly disclose their assets.
In the past, authorities tried such policies at the local level, but there has not been a top-down approach to give the public more information about officials’ assets.
That, however, could be changing.
China's Communist Party has publicly acknowledged its fight against corruption is a life or death struggle, and in the coming weeks several new - albeit small scale - asset disclosure programs are expected to be initiated, one in the eastern city of Ningbo and three others in the progressive southern province of Guangdong.
Details of the programs are still coming together, but state media report that the program in Ningbo will only be applied to newly appointed government officials.
The program in Guangdong will require major party and government officials to report their assets, investments and employment details of their spouses and children.
He Bing, assistant dean of the law school of the China University of Political Science and Law, says there are signs that the new measures could succeed where past experiments failed. He says the public demand for disclosure is stronger and China’s change in leadership is helping to intensify the anti-corruption push.
“Given all these factors, I think that these new policies like the one that is going into place in Guangdong are different from the past,” He Ping says.
“The ones we have seen before were just tests, but these new pilot programs are more like a signal that something is about to begin. And slowly these experiments will expand.”
Not everyone is optimistic. Some of the programs that already have been experimented with in the past, such as one in Xinjiang and the provinces of Hunan and Zhejiang, have had mixed results, says Allen Clayton-Greene, a senior analyst with China Policy.
The program in Xinjiang lasted for less than a year and ended when the anti-corruption official there passed away, Clayton-Greene says. But the program in Zhejiang’s Cixi has been going on since 2009.
“That [program] required people to disclose their personal income, private cars and houses as well as those owned by their children and family members,” he says. “But one of the issues with the Cixi pilot program is that there were zero complaints received from the public and there was sort of fury about the fact there was actually no way in which the public could file complaints, in respect to officials' assets.”
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Analysts say that just how high up the experiments in Ningbo and Guandong will reach remains to be seen.
Ren Jianming, director of the anti-corruption and governance research center at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, says that whatever the final product, the asset disclosure should include prominent officials as well as their family members.
“It is not necessary that all officials be required to disclose their assets, but at least the high-ranking officials including municipal level ones, departments and bureau heads should release details of their assets to the public,” Ren says.
“Other lower-ranking officials do not need to make the assets public, instead they only need to release their information internally so it can be monitored.”
Since 1995, officials in China have been required to report their salaries to the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Just a few years ago, that was expanded to include the assets of their family members’ personal income, investments and property holdings.
That information, however, has never been made public, in part because of government concerns about how the release of such information could create social instability.
Information about officials' personal wealth has long been a sensitive topic in China. The Internet sites of both the New York Times and Bloomberg have been blocked since last year after both published stories about the family assets of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao and incoming president Xi Jinping.
Since becoming party chairman last November, Xi and the head of the party’s disciplinary commission, Wang Qishan, have been taking steps to crack down on corruption. Xi has pledged to go after both high- and low-ranking officials, and the party says it will launch a major anti-corruption plan this year.
He Bing says what China needs is a breakthrough, and that the country’s leader in waiting, Xi Jinping, knows the crisis his ruling party is facing.
“Xi is like any other leader, like President Obama, once he assumes power he needs to take action. As new leaders they introduce severe new measures and changes and take a more aggressive approach.”
What kind of role asset disclosure could play in that plan is unclear. The party’s disciplinary commission says it will carry out spot checks on senior leaders' disclosed assets, albeit internally.
Some anti-corruption scholars in China say the government should set up an amnesty program to prod corrupt officials to come forward, and give them some guarantees that possible penalties could be lightened.
Tsinghua University’s Ren Jianming says amnesty would need a legal basis and should be different from political movements the party has launched in the past to root out corruption.
“In the past, similar policies by the Chinese government have resulted in unfavorable outcomes,” Ren says. “Those who did not come forward and reveal their acts of corruption managed to escape punishment, and those who did come forward willingly were punished. In the end, the result was just the opposite of what was intended.”
Unlike past campaigns that the party has carried out to crack down on the problem of corruption, analysts say if amnesty is used again, it needs to have a legal basis. Some analysts in China say the amnesty could apply to acts of corruption prior to last November’s 18th Party Congress.