Wednesday, 20th August 03:33 HKT
Background: Since assuming office, China’s president Xi Jinping has made the crackdown on corruption one of the star policies of this administration. Aware of rising discontent amongst the general population, and resentment at a widening wealth divide (see chiecon post), the Chinese Communist Party has concerns about the potentially destabilising effects of endemic corruption. As such Xi Jinping has vowed to strike both the ‘tigers’, top officials, and swat the ‘flies’, those officials lower down the rungs, whom most Chinese will encounter on a day-to-day basis. Another benefit of rooting out corruption is the removal of ‘dinosaurs’ (a chiecon term) from SOEs (see chiecon post), which are responsible for wasting large amounts of resources, and suffocating more efficient private enterprises (see chiecon post).
On the macro-economic scale, investigations like those into Zhou Yongkang, help pave the way for wider economic reform. But trying to change the system itself is a much greater task, one that could take decades, and one that must start at the grassroots level. In January 2010, a communiqué issued by the fifth plenary session of the 17th Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the CPC, stipulated that officials should report their property and investments. On March 5, 2011, Minister of Supervision Ma Wen said that a system would be introduced for officials to declare their personal assets, which could be publicly scrutinized. Last year’s Third Plenum government meeting proposed that all newly promoted officials must disclose their assets. This year, the Ministry of Land and Resources proposed a draft regulation which would link property registration to official assets.
Given the sensitivity of revealing official’s assets in a communist political system, and the powerful self-interests that can and will block change, it’s easier to start at the bottom, and in a few locations. China’s recent history has witnessed some disastrous nation wide reform policies, hence starting in Deng Xiaoping’s era, new transformational policies tend to be implemented in a few areas at first, and if deemed successful, rolled out to the rest of the country. This is otherwise known as ‘feeling the stones, whilst crossing the river’.
A report by Beijing News indicates this particular piece of reform as hit a brick wall. Only a few pilot schemes have taken off, fewer last long, the scope is only for lower ranking cadres, and most of the information hasn’t been revealed to the public. Efforts by the journalists to enquire about pilot scheme progress met with difficulties, with nine areas not answering continuous calls for three days, and another nine areas either too busy, or unclear on the latest status and unwilling to accept interviews. Pilot schemes are facing stiff opposition by cadres, and worries by government officials higher up of maintaining social stability, make this a long road to reform.
Since 2009, nearly forty locations have announced plans to establish officials’ assets disclosure pilot schemes, yet less than half have succeeded. Of these, only fourteen areas have persisted with the pilot scheme, and most of these only report their findings internally. Of those pilot scheme results revealed to the public, over half concern just the lower ranking officials at township level.
The first pilot scheme was launched in 2009, in Altay, a prefecture level city in Xinjiang province. In 2013, Shixing county in Shaoguan city, Guangdong province, also revealed it had set-up a system to check the assets of 526 officials. Asset items covered include salary, property, investment and so on. Then on August 11th Harbin city, in Heilongjiang province, announced it had launched a similar scheme. Their pilot scheme covers officials’ income, cars, property and other personal wealth. Harbin is only the third provincial capital city to set-up a pilot scheme. The other two are Hebei province’s Shijiazhuang, and Ningxia’s Yinchuan. The remaining pilot schemes are all at county level.
Also in terms of the cadre rankings, of the thirty areas investigated by Beijing News, only one pilot scheme in Nanshan district, Guangzhou city, reaches as high as provincial level officials. Here, the disclosure requirements apply to newly promoted cadres, or those at junior rank transferring from other areas. But in both cases the information is classified as internal, so no opportunity for the public to see the contents.
When journalists asked Harbin for information as to the cadre levels that will be included in the scheme, they were passed around between departments, unable to get an answer. Four areas announced pilot schemes but never established them. Nine areas only include junior officials in their public disclosure scheme. The remaining fifteen pilot schemes asset disclosures are limited to all levels of cadres under provincial level. Beitang district, in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, has the narrowest remit, simply requesting newly promoted cadres to the level just below provincial level, to disclose assets.
But when looking at the actual success rates for these pilot schemes, the figures are not promising. Of the thirty pilot schemes researched, four areas announced plans but were never started. Thirteen schemes failed to take off. Three pilot schemes announced findings once or twice, but were then cancelled. Of the other ten schemes, it was not possible to obtain an update from those in charge.
However the reasons for the low success rate of these officials’ asset disclosure pilot schemes can fit into four broad categories:
Firstly, the problem of those in charge leaving their posts. As is the common practise in the Chinese Communist Party, officials are often rotated and promoted every few years between regions. This is in order to prevent any one official from amassing too much power in a region, or abusing their position for personal gain. The downside is that once an official, who has implemented this unpopular system and claimed the credit, moves on, the newly promoted cadre has less incentive to continue implementing the old policy. This was the case for the first pilot scheme that was launched in Altay, Xinjiang. Considered a model pilot scheme at the time, over one thousand officials’ asset details were published on the internet. Now, it’s impossible to find that notice. Unfortunately in the same year the scheme was launched, the local secretary of the Discipline Inspection Commission Wu Weiping, who was the main sponsor, passed away through illness. Some two years later, it was announced the scheme would change, and that in accordance with the regional policy, assets would be registered, but no longer publicly disclosed. A similar situation occurred in Hunan province’s Xiangxiang county, and is cited by leading academics as the main reason for these pilot schemes failing.
Secondly, pilot schemes meet with local resistance. Take for example the scheme in Xiangxiang county, Hunan province. When introduced, this scheme encompassed many senior officials, including city level Party Secretaries, Standing Committee members, Mayors, court officials and Public Security Bureau official, in total 69 cadres. The pilot scheme focussed on the property held by officials, and registered a lot of detail, including property type, floor area, price, location and the names of the deed holders. Of the 69, only 1 official did not own a property. 51 officials owned one property, 16 owned two, and 1 owned three properties, with a total floor area exceeding 1000 sq.m. A government official reveals, these figures caused a lot of controversy, with many local residents suspicious about how some officials amassed so many properties, and newly promoted officials unwilling to cooperate with the policy. In the end, their superiors decided not to implement the scheme again. To be noted, over thirty of the other pilot schemes only record the number of properties held, not including the additional details of price, floor area etc.
Thirdly, pilot schemes have faced difficulties in how to record and verify the assets held by local government officials. This was the case for Qingtong county level city in Ningxia province. The local Party Secretary Wan Yuzhong said the pilot scheme had to be ‘paused’ this year as there is no way to confirm disclosures to be true or not. It is especially difficult to check shares, or assets held in the name of a spouse. In fact, trying to obtain a complete picture of an official’s assets involves checking with numerous departments, and there’s no official guide as to the exact method to adopt in implementing these checks. Relying on the recently announced plans for a property registration system won’t be enough to solve these problems.
Finally, some pilot schemes have been cancelled by government officials higher up. Qianjiang district in Chongqing province, was one of the earlier pilot schemes, and aimed at disclosing the assets of newly promoted cadres. However the scheme was cancelled from above, and not to be repeated, as there have been no new directives from the central government. However some academics suggest the real reason for halting these pilot schemes has been the higher level governments concerns on the reaction of the masses to these disclosures. Even if an official has obtained property through legitimate means, for example receiving welfare housing, it seems this won’t be accepted by the people. With maintaining stability in mind, senior officials then call time on the pilot scheme.
Thus it seems, even when the government tries to be transparent on the issue of officials’ assets, the reality is most people are unwilling to accept the results. The response so far by the local governments to then hide the information will only make the problem worse. For now it seems, full disclosure of all officials’ assets seems more like a Chinese dream.
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