Clouds over China's 'Sunshine' law
By Stephanie Wang

CHANGSHA, China - In a renewed effort to curb increasingly rampant official corruption, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plans to introduce into law so-called "Sunshine" regulations, which require that all officials' open up their personal assets and incomes
to public scrutiny.

The "Sunshine" policy will be debated, and possibly approved, at the Central Committee's annual plenary session, scheduled for September. Under the plan, officials must fully declare their assets as well as those of close relatives. The information is then posted on websites or public notice boards run by local anti-corruption agencies.

In 2007, the government ordered officials, from the central government down to the county level, to declare personal and family incomes before taking office - the inner-party directive was dubbed the "Sunshine" policy in the media. With corruption seemingly spiraling out of control, the government has decided to make the policy a nationwide law.

The CCP formally launched a countrywide campaign to curb official corruption in 1998. It has renewed the crackdown from time to time, but with little effect. The number of officials caught has grown each year, while the rank of the corrupt officials is more senior and the average size of bribes has increased.

According to statistics from the Supreme People's Court, about 50,000 officials have been convicted of corruption annually since 2003. The average size of bribes also increased from 2.53 million yuan (US$370,000) in 2007 to 8.84 million yuan ($1.29 million) in 2008, according to the Fazhi Wanbao (Legal Evening News).

In the past six years, at lease 39 ministerial- or provincial-level officials and 1,111 at a prefecture-level (prefecture-level are regarded as senior cadres in the CCP hierarchy) have been jailed for corruption. The most senior was former Shanghai party secretary and politburo member Chen Liangyu, who was sentenced to 18-years imprisonment last year for taking bribes.

So last month's sudden arrest of Shenzhen mayor Xu Zhongheng, a deputy-ministerial level official, surprised no one. Reports say Xu was taking huge bribes from developers and then using these funds to bribe higher-ranking officials to ensure the safety of his political career.

Almost all of the cases have been uncovered by the party's anti-graft watchdog, with hardly any being exposed by the media or the public. But the public still believe they have resulted from political struggles and not the anti-corruption campaign.

Apparently, no matter how successful the crackdown may appear (as suggested by the above data), and no matter how many laws have been written (there are currently more than 1,200 anti-corruption laws, rules, and directives), the government's anti-corruption campaign is still a lost cause.

From this perspective, it is big progress for the CCP to adopt the "Sunshine" policy. But there remain fears that its implementation will be twisted by local officials, leaving the policy toothless. The policy's test-runs in some regions have seen less than satisfactory results.

The "Sunshine" policy requires that all government meetings, decisions and records be made available to the public. It is universally agreed that disclosure of officials' property assets, as part of sunshine laws, is a potent weapon against corruption.

As early as 1766, Swedish citizens had access to the tax reports of civil servants and politically appointed officials, right up to the prime minister. Since then, the disclosure system has been introduced to many countries and regions. For example, the policy has improved governance in South Korea and Taiwan.

In China, a similar motion was first tabled in 1988. Seven years later, the CCP launched the first internal regulations requiring officials of prefecture-level and above to declare their income. Another six years later (2001), the CCP's Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) and Central Organization Department jointly laid out more internal regulations with 15 articles requiring officials of ministerial level to disclose their family properties.

These internal regulations may be regarded as stepping stones towards the "Sunshine" policy to be unveiled in September. But in them were loopholes that local officials easily made use of. First, they were party disciplinary regulations instead of laws. Second, they covered only salaries and other incomes excluding family properties and other non-labor incomes.

Thirdly, officials were only required to disclose their assets to personnel departments, and the information was kept out of the public's reach. Lastly and most importantly, there is no stipulation on how an official who provides false information would be punished.

Despite of all this, apparently to prepare for the introduction of the "Sunshine" policy, the power center has asked regions to make bold experiment on declaration of properties by officials.

Early experiments were initiated at the beginning of this year in Cixi city of Zhejiang province and Aletai district in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, they have attracted wide attention. Cixi posted declarations of assets on public-notice boards of the municipal government, local court, and other government agencies. Aletai chose to go online - boosting the number of viewers of the official website of the local anti-graft watchdog to over 100,000 a day from previously less than 100. Journalists have flocked in to the two localities to cover the reforms.

Praiseworthy as their pioneering spirit may be, the results of the experiments remain in doubt. For a start, there is no guarantee that the information disclosed is genuine. For example, every single one of the 1,056 officials in the Aletai district reported that they had received no gifts. This is simply too clean to be true.

The information disclosed also may not present the genuine picture. In Cixi, the required disclosure only covers the regular incomes of officials and their spouses and children, excluding their bank deposits, trust funds, stocks, and securities. The requirement in Aletai is even more limited, covering only the salaries and bonuses of officials themselves.

Public accessibility to the disclosed information has also been questioned. In Cixi, the asset-declarations of officials were posted for no more than three days, while the Aletai website was blocked during the July 5 violence in Xinjiang province. In neither place have specific supporting measures been introduced, for instance how to identify false information and how to punish those who submit false information.

But one obvious result of the compulsory disclosure has been in the account set-up by the Aletai anti-graft watchdog for officials to turn in bribes offered to them. Before May 2008, the account's balance was zero. After the disclosure mechanism was introduced, it increased to 800,000 yuan.

Last month Gaoxian, a county in Sichuan province, followed suit though in a much distorted version of the "sunshine" rules. First, compulsory disclosure was required only for middle-ranking officials. Second, instead of making the disclosed information public, all the information was classified as "confidential". In many aspects, the Gaoxian experiment is a total mockery of its two predecessors. If the disclosure mechanism is a touchstone of the political will to fight corruption, Gaoxian has doubtless failed the test.

On the positive side, the test runs have provided experiences for Beijing to work out a more effective "Sunshine" policy. But loopholes must be plugged up and penalties introduced for officials who give false declarations if Beijing genuinely wants the "Sunshine" policy to work.

Stephanie Wang is a freelance contributor based in Changsha, China.