Last week, readers of south China’s most popular newspaper learnt that the Minister of Culture has US$240,000 worth of deposits in six currencies in nine different banks. It is obligatory for her to declare them, as well as her property, cars, securities and other assets.
But the minister in question is not Cai Wu, who sits in Beijing, but Lung Ying-tai, the minister of the Republic of China who sits in Taipei.
The Southern Metropolitan Daily, one of the best newspapers in the mainland, noted that since 1993 ministers and other senior officials of the Taiwan government have been legally obliged to make a public declaration of their assets once a year.
If the declaration is inaccurate, they can be fined or be jailed for up to a year.
The newspaper was making a point: if the leaders of Taiwan can do this, why can’t ours?
Asset disclosure has been a subject of intense debate in the mainland among the public and lawmakers for more than a decade.
Since 2003, Han Deyun, a representative of the National People’s Congress from Chongqing, has every year proposed a law to the NPC that requires public officials to declare their assets.
In March 2010, Li Fei, deputy director of the legislative affairs committee of the NPC Standing Committee, said that legislation requiring public officials to declare their personal assets was under consideration and that it would prevent corruption and improve government transparency.
“This legislation requires mature consideration of all conditions,” he said.
That is how it stands today – a law is still being considered.
Public opinion, expressed on the Internet, in blogs and in the reformist media, is overwhelmingly in favor.
“The public’s trust in party and government leaders and satisfaction with the work practices of party and government departments is falling every day,” said Century Weekly, the country’s most influential business weekly.
“Globally, more than 90 per cent of countries have legislation mandating disclosure of assets held by government leaders and members of the cabinet, including even Russia … a sense of morality cannot replace a system of rules,” it said.
It was President Lee Teng-hui who introduced the system in 1993, as part of a cleaning up of the government and Kuomintang. Like their counterparts in the mainland, KMT officials used their powers to enrich themselves and their families and build offshore assets, especially in the United States.
The law requires hundreds of public officials to report their assets within three months of taking office. They include senior civil servants, high-ranking military officers, members of parliament, judges, prosecutors and heads of public schools, as well as the president, vice-president and members of the cabinet.
The assets include boats, yachts, jewelry, paintings and antiques as well as property, securities, bank accounts and debt. People in Taiwan – and around the world – even know the brand of car owned by President Ma Ying-jeou and what horsepower it has.
The Control Yuan, the government department responsible for the figures, said the figure for inaccuracy has fallen from 42 percent in the first year, 1993, to three percent in 2013. It has become so normal that it barely makes the news in the Taiwan media.
In 2008, the Yuan fined Lian Chan, vice-president between 1996 and 2000, NT$100,000 for not reporting the ownership of a property within the time required.
But none of this is going to happen in the mainland. The vast majority of party and government officials strong oppose such measure. They can take their cue from President Xi Jinping and former premier Wen Jiabao.
The leaders were enraged by articles in Bloomberg and the New York Times about assets held by their families and ordered the blocking of their sites in China. Foreign Ministry officials have told the foreign media that the publication of such information about senior officials and their families is a red line that they must not cross. If they do, their access to news in China and selling it to the Chinese market is at risk.
A handful of cities – Aksu in Xinjiang, Cixi in Zhejiang, Liuyang in Hunan and Yinchuan and Qingtong in Ningxia – issued regulations requiring their officials to declare their salaries and allowances. But the data has not been updated, nor have other cities followed suit.
With no national legislation and intense opposition from civil servants, local governments cannot force public declaration. If those at the top of the government do not do it, why should they?
The result is widespread cynicism among the public, who presume corruption and nepotism among the people ruling them, even if they have no proof of it.
“If you put 100 officials against a wall and machine-gunned them, you might kill one innocent person,” as one Beijing taxi driver put it eloquently.
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