Last updated: November 14, 2012 11:16 am

Beijing strives to present clean leaders

In Pangu, a small town in northeastern China near the Russian border, anything is possible – with a bribe. Despite strict limits on logging, overloaded timber trucks stream past the inspection gates at one of China’s largest lumber loading hubs.

“The lorries with a permit can pass. The transports without permits can pass after they pay,” explains a local inspector.

He says the bribes are necessary because he cannot survive on his monthly salary of Rmb860 ($138). His take-home pay has not increased since he started three decades ago because any raises have been pocketed by more senior officials.

“All officials in China are corrupt. The small ones on a small scale and the senior ones on a large scale,” he adds, sitting on a wooden bench in front of his house.

Until recently, most Chinese could not have grasped the extent of the issue, which ranges from local corruption to the amassing of wealth by relatives of senior officials. The New York Times last month reported that Premier Wen Jiabao’s family members had amassed $2.7bn in assets, mostly after he assumed office.

The revelation came at a sensitive time, as the Communist party prepares to pass power to a new generation of leaders on Thursday.

“The ruling party’s image has suffered another bad blow because of the astronomical sums, the long duration and the names that were mentioned,” says Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College.

The party was already struggling to neutralise the scandal around Bo Xilai, the ambitious Chongqing politician who was purged this year following revelations that his wife had murdered a British businessman.

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The party leadership moved last month to have Mr Bo prosecuted on a string of charges, including corruption. But observers says that decision was taken with great political concern.

“There were very lengthy and very difficult discussions about whether he should be put on trial for alleged corruption at all because it looks so ugly,” said one retired senior prosecutor. “How do you explain that he violated party discipline and the law over many years and in several different positions, and got away with it?”

When the new members of its Politburo Standing Committee, the small group that essentially rules China, are unveiled, the party will want to present them as model officials. But that has become much more difficult in the face of the growing public debate of systemic corruption.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that family members of Xi Jinping, the incoming president, had also amassed large wealth. Underscoring the lengths the party will go to hide suggestions of corruption by senior officials, the New York Times and Bloomberg websites have been inaccessible in China since the stories were published.

“I think the leaders in Beijing are very aware that in the age of the internet and rapid flow of information, they need to think again how to fight corruption,” says Lu Xiaobo, a political-science professor at Columbia University. “The revelation of all sorts of cases through social media creates growing doubt in the Communist party regime’s legitimacy.”

Senior officials are aware of the pressure. Yu Zhengsheng, the party secretary of Shanghai who is expected to be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, said that if the party centre agreed, he was willing to declare his assets publicly.

Sensing that there might be an opening, transparency advocates have started clamouring that the party must act now, or never, to tackle graft.

Wang Yukai, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance, a government institution for training officials, says the leadership should require senior officials to publicly declare their assets. “I am lobbying that the party leadership must adopt this reform now to evoke new public trust,” he says.

The problem is that all of this has been said many times before. When Hu Jintao last week used his last major speech as party general secretary to warn that the party and even the nation could perish because of corruption, he was using language similar to that of Jiang Zemin, his predecessor, more than 10 years ago.

China has a set of laws and party-internal regulations dealing with corruption and has continuously refined its criminal code to target all aspects of it in recent years.

Yet, the number of reported corruption cases, the amounts of money and the ranks of the officials involved continues to climb, according to Lin Zhe, a professor at the Central Party School.

Since 2009, cities, towns and districts all over China started pilot projects for local officials to declare their assets or income, but most were stopped after one round.

Chinese officials must report their income and assets regularly. However, the documents are filed only internally. Legislation to make public asset declarations mandatory has been proposed at China’s parliament for seven years in a row but has yet to be passed.

Corruption experts who are advising the party say the reports are in most cases not even audited properly. They add that the Organisation Department, the powerful party division in charge of human resources, has been delaying the adoption of more stringent measures with excuses.

Analysts conclude that it may just be too much to expect for a one-party regime without independent checks and balances to supervise itself.

“The key point is that regulations are laid down by officials,” says Zhang Qingsong, a partner at a Shangquan law firm who has worked on corruption cases. “Thus it is not realistic that they would set out regulations that would harm themselves.”

Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi

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