As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting officials who have family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate in China, on exactly how many corrupt officials take that route, and how likely it is they will be caught.
The story of a local official in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, who resigned after reports said her husband had emigrated to the United States, highlights the challenges and confusion surrounding the so-called “naked officials” in China.
The term refers to Communist cadres who stay in China but send their spouses or children to live abroad, opening up a channel to potentially hide the fruits of corruption from Chinese supervision.
Liu Yan, the Shenzhen official, admitted her husband had taken up residency in the United States in the 1980s, which - according to Chinese media - is in itself evidence of her being a “naked official.”
“I am just a normal wife and mother,” Liu told Chinese media in her defense.
Zhu Jiangnan, assistant professor of politics at the University of Hong Kong, says it is very hard for the government in China to tell its employees not to send family members abroad - a very common occurrence in China for people who can afford it.
“The problem is how do their family members support their lives overseas? Do they have their own regular job and are financially independent form officials working in China? But if a lot of their financial support comes from the official who still remains in China, this will naturally put a lot of doubt on where they get this large amount of money,” said Zhu Jiangnan.
Earlier this week, the Ministry of Public Security announced there are more than 150 economic fugitives in the United States alone, and that many of them are officials suspected of graft in China.
Analysts believe the number of officials caught or suspected of being “naked” is a small fraction of the real phenomenon, which remains hard to quantify - even for the government itself.
“The government requires all officials to report the residential status of their family members to tell if their family members are staying in China, or actually migrated to other countries. However a lot of officials have not reported this information honestly, and it is really hard to verify if the information is true,” said Zhu Jiangnan.
But in recent months, after the Communist Party passed new guidelines urging those with family overseas to bring them back or resign, the focus has shifted onto local administrations.
Chinese media reported that by the end of July, all local governments had completed an internal survey on where officials and their immediate families lived.
Apart from a few localities who said no naked officials were in their midst, most regions failed to reveal their findings to the public.
The only province that actually reported problems was Guangdong, where the survey found 2,190 “naked officials,” 866 of them already removed from their post.
Anti-corruption professor King Twun Tsao at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says the southern province has been on the forefront of reform for decades.
“It signifies and tells the rest of China or the central government that Guangdong is going to do whatever it is necessary to do, that might be a kind of political loyalty to the center by a local leader,” he said.
Zhu Jiangnan says that more important than the total number, is the ranking of naked officials.
“Even though the total number is not large, is relatively small but if it's mainly the high level officials who are involved in this issue, I think it damages the image of the party and it is a more serious problem,” she said.
Lack of transparency
The lid kept on the survey has caused much speculation about the severity of the problem, but it has also renewed a debate about how little the public in China knows about the wealth and assets of officials.
After years of debate, China has yet to draft a nationwide law to require officials disclose their assets.
The leadership has signaled its unwillingness to negotiating the problem with the public by jailing a number of activists who had called for officials to disclose their assets.
But if President Xi Jinping is serious about catching “naked officials,” analysts believe more transparency and monitoring of public wealth will be a necessary part of the solution.