Matthew noted yesterday how continuing revelations of the vast wealth some Chinese officials have accumulated put China’s leaders in a bind. If they don’t curb corruption, they risk undermining their legitimacy; on the other side, so many senior individuals are involved that a serious crackdown could ignite a power struggle.
An important gauge of the direction the leadership will choose is how vigorously it enforces a directive issued in November 2013 requiring public servants to disclose details about their and their family members’ finances. Requiring senior officials to reveal their personal finances can be a valuable tool in the battle against grand corruption, as one of China’s East Asian neighbors can testify. In the Philippines, the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth officials must file has been central to exposing the corrupt dealings of a president and a chief justice as well as revealing a nest of corrupt tax collectors.
On the other hand, the November directive is not the first time China has demanded that its public officials come clean about their personal finances. In 1995, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council jointly promulgated a regulation requiring officials above the county level to report their income, and in 2001, the Party released a second rule mandating officials above the provincial and ministerial level report their family assets to the Party. But the disclosures were made to another government agency, and several of that agency’s employees told me that enforcement was half-hearted. Many officials did not file the required reports, and many of the reports that were filed were obviously false.
Will the latest effort be any different? An early sign will be whether the implementing regulations mandate that the submissions be public. China’s earlier experience, where the reports were submitted to a government agency and quietly ignored, is typical of the financial disclosure programs in many countries. Publishing the disclosures on the web or otherwise giving the public the right to review them makes it far less likely they will be ignored. What tripped up the Philippine president and a bevy of tax officials were press reports comparing how well they lived against the meager wealth they reported on their Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth.
Making the personal finances of Chinese leaders open to scrutiny by ordinary citizens might sound as likely to happen as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holding a free and fair election. But there are Chinese academics and even Chinese leaders who realize that a serious effort to curb avarice at the top demands it. The issue is likely to arise at the meeting of the National People’s Congress in early March. So what will China do? Will it finally take income and asset disclosure seriously?