A Year of Scandal and Intrigue

China grapples with growing calls for transparency.

xi-jinping-national-day2-305 China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping (r) attends the 63rd National Day reception at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Sept. 29, 2012.

Faced with growing public calls for officials to declare their own and their family's assets, China performed poorly this year in a global corruption index, amid one of the most damaging political scandals to hit the ruling Chinese Communist Party in two decades.

Published this month by Berlin-based Transparency International, which measures perceptions of corruption around the world, the survey ranked mainland China 80th out of 176 countries, down five places from last year.

China's new leadership, headed by president-in-waiting Xi Jinping, has warned that the Party must tackle corruption if it is to remain in power.

To that end, the new administration has banned lavish official functions and special traffic controls for official visits, as well as removing from office a senior provincial official in Sichuan for graft.

But the authorities have so far declined to respond to an increasingly vocal public campaign for a "sunshine law," which would require officials to make public details of their personal and family wealth.

The campaign came after a string of overseas media reports revealed details of the hidden wealth of China's leaders, including an estimated U.S.$2.7 billion of hidden assets controlled by relatives of outgoing premier Wen Jiabao reported in the New York Times.

In July, Internet censors blocked access to Bloomberg's website following the agency's expose of overseas wealth linked to the family of vice-president Xi, while in October, a powerful ally of outgoing president Hu Jintao was shunted aside for promotion after his son was identified as the driver in a fatal crash of a Ferrari sports car earlier in the year, which sparked a wave of online rumors, but was never reported in the Chinese media.

Last month's 18th Party Congress saw high-ranking officials claiming to have learned hard lessons from the fall of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, and from the jailing of his wife for the murder of a British businessman.

But Party spokesman Cai Minzhao also said the current system of one-party rule is unlikely to change.


The Party expelled fallen Chinese political star Bo from its ranks in October, following accusations of corruption and sexual misconduct, removing his parliamentary privilege and paving the way for a criminal trial.

Bo was judged to bear "major responsibility" in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, for which his wife Gu Kailai was handed a suspended death sentence on Aug. 20.

His former police chief and right-hand man Wang Lijun was jailed for 15 years in September for "bending the law for selfish ends," "abuse of power," and "defection," after his Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu brought the scandal to public attention.

But analysts see Bo's fall as having more to do with factional infighting within the Party than as evidence that the fight against graft is genuine.

"China has suffered long at the hands of corrupt officials," wrote Bao Tong, former top Party aide to ousted late premier Zhao Ziyang, in a recent essay.

"And yet the proposal to bring in a 'sunshine law' requiring leaders and officials to disclose the details of their personal wealth comes back year after year," he wrote from under house arrest at his Beijing home.

"We hear the feet on the stairs, yet no visitor arrives. This is very strange. Incomprehensible, unless of course someone very powerful is obstructing it behind the scenes," Bao wrote.


The campaign to pressure top officials of the Communist Party to make public the details of their family wealth began to gather momentum in the wake of calls at the Party Congress last month for an effective war on graft.

More than 2,000 people took to the streets of Shanghai in December, marching along a main road in the downtown district and calling on officials to publicize details of their assets, income, and investments, while thousands of online activists signed a petition.

The government's propaganda machine quickly clamped down on media reports on the subject, while a Party-backed expert called for some corrupt officials to be allowed to keep their ill-gotten gains.

"Do not republish or comment on the China Business Journal report, which states that Guangdong has chosen Hengqin, Nansha, and Shixing as the locations for a pilot program for the public disclosure of officials’ personal finances," the Guangdong provincial propaganda department said in a media directive issued Dec. 11.

"Do not produce reports on related content," said the directive, translated by the China Digital Times website, which monitors official directives to China's state-controlled media.

Partial amnesty

Meanwhile, top anti-corruption expert Li Yongzhong called for a partial amnesty for embezzled funds.

Li, deputy director of the China Discipline Inspection Institute in Beijing, told the Jinghua Times newspaper that an amnesty could encourage corrupt officials to turn whistleblower and aid the anti-graft effort.

Li's proposals met with fierce opposition among Chinese netizens, with the majority of users on the popular Twitter-like sites Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo concluding that they must have backing from the Party leadership.

Shenzhen-based activist Guo Yongfeng, who founded the non-government Federation of Chinese Citizens for Supervision of the Government, said such a measure was utterly desperate.

"There are no clean officials now, so just imagine the sort of operation that would be involved if they tried to arrest all of them," Guo said. "They wouldn't catch them all, even if [the whole population of] 1.4 billion went after them."

Guo said the key to fighting corruption in China was an independent judiciary.

"The problem is that there is no rule of law, so it's hard for anything to have a long-term impact," he said.

'Social impact'

Xie Tian, professor of management at the University of South Carolina, said there had been similar policies to that suggested by Li in anti-corruption campaigns at certain times in the U.S.

"Such measures can have a social impact," Xie said. "But in China, the problem is that there is a one-party dictatorship, and the Communist Party isn't subject to the law."

"That is the crucial factor; it is written into the Chinese Constitution that the Communist Party is above the Constitution," he said.

Guo said he had already been targeted and harassed on a number of occasions since he set up his anti-corruption group, including being sentenced to "re-education through labor."

"What we need is a platform from which to supervise the goverment that isn't the [Party's] Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, or the People's Procuratorate, or the anti-corruption bureau," he said.

"It needs to be a body that is outside the Party, before this could ever work. Without such a platform, these measures can never work," he added.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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