China's Microbloggers Ask: What's the Net Worth of Our Government Officials?

Chairman Mao on China's 100 yuan note. (super.heavy/Flickr)

Asia Society Associate Fellow Steven Lewis, the C.V. Starr Transnational China Fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, says reports in the state-sponsored Chinese press about calls for financial disclosure by public officials could be a sign that some in the country's leadership are open to the possibility.

Earlier this month, Chinese microbloggers began demanding information about the finances of government officials after the state-run Beijing Daily called on U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke to reveal his finances after being seen flying economy class and buying his own coffee. The newspaper argued that Locke is much wealthier than the average person and was only attempting to curry favor with the Chinese people. The story blew up on the newspaper when microbloggers and the U.S. State Department pointed out that Locke, like other U.S. public officials, had already made his finances available to the public. A number of state-sponsored Chinese media outlets reported on the issue, including the China Daily, People's Daily, and Global Times.

Asia Blog spoke to Lewis by telephone about the potential for anti-corruption rules such as financial disclosure to make headway in China.

Why is it significant to see state-sponsored Chinese media outlets reporting on the online outcry for financial transparency by public officials?

Central media and even local media in China are not supposed to openly criticize central government leaders, so for them to print something like this — which is bound to keep alive and maybe even spark more debate about corruption at the highest levels — I think is very important, especially coming into a leadership transition period at the end of this year.

I think that what the reports suggest is that increased disclosure might be on the table at the Party Congress this fall for leaders to talk about making things more transparent, including revealing public assets and things along those lines. To me it suggests that someone at the top thinks that this is doable and it’s something they should do, otherwise they wouldn’t have allowed the central media to publish these stories.

Some of these media outlets, especially the Global Times, have touched on controversial issues in the past. Could they have just taken this opportunity to go off the reservation?

It’s true that the central media may have stepped out on their own a little bit, and there are some hints to suggest that they were picking up on an opportunity potentially created by [New Express Daily], a Guangdong newspaper in southern China [a traditionally more liberal media environment than in Beijing].

There was no real violation by the media outlets in the sense that no individual leader was named, and so that rule hasn't been violated. But on the other hand, criticizing the central leadership is against the rules, and at least the Guangdong newspaper got away with that, and then central newspapers turned around and reported it — that's a doubly-whammy. So there is either more disunity at the politburo level than we thought, or alternatively some of the reformers — people who actually want more transparency in the Chinese government — are striking back at the corruption that has emerged from the Bo Xilai scandal.

In the story in which they quote an official from the Central Party School saying it will take 10 years for public disclosure to happen, what that official is actually saying is, "Look, we have the information available already in-house and there's no good reason we can't disclose it." To me it really does suggest we may have some actual significant transparency steps coming up at the party congress.

What advantage would Chinese officials have in creating full disclosure rules?

These disclosure rules may not reveal the corruption that is coming out in the Bo Xilai affair, which is more about connections and people who owe you favors. Transparency won't necessarily reveal that, much in the same way that it doesn't reveal that here [in the U.S.] either. And that might be why some of these officials really support this. I’m sure there are some officials who aren’t corrupt, and they feel like they’ve really lost some credibility, and also social status. If everyone thinks that all officials are corrupt, who wants to be an official?

There is a vehicle for people to voice their opinions and have their ideas incorporated into government policy, which is the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. That group meets about the same time as the National People's Congress, and is more of a local society organization that historically has more parties that are in it. These calls for disclosure are coming from microbloggers, but it suggests that there is a popular desire to have a movement emerging from society and use an institution such as the CPPCC to gain status in working with the Communist Party. Related, when Premier Wen Jiabao talks about democratizing the party we've been assuming it means that lower-level party leaders will never actually say anything critical of higher level leaders. But what this may signal is that bottom-up voices may have more of a chance to be heard in the Communist Party Congress this fall. And if these voices are heard then it seems more likely that other voices could be heard in the CPPCC meetings next February and March. To me that would suggest that there is more possibility down the road of China moving toward a multi-party system.

The party seems to move slowly in terms of making leadership decisions — do you think new transparency laws could be implemented at the next National Congress?

I think it's possible this could be one of the hallmarks of the new leadership. Every new leadership does have to have its own campaign, we know that for a fact. They need to have something to distinguish themselves — whether it's the Scientific Development of Hu Jintao, or the Three Represents of Jiang Zemin — so of course Xi Jinping will have his own platform. I doubt they'll use the word transparency, but transparency could be part of it.

The Chinese government does do a lot of polling, and they know corruption is unpopular. If it's true that what really upsets people isn't the inequality in the country, but the corruption by high-level officials, bringing in disclosure rules could be a very smart move on his part. Just having that type of transparency might actually make them more popular, even if they don't substantially change many of their policies.

About the Author

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Alex Ortolani is Asia Society’s Senior Media and Content Officer.