Chief executive must be seen to be honest

October 14, 2014 09:35
Leung Chun-ying could learn from three mainland officials who defied their colleagues and their own families by disclosing their assets. Photo: HKEJ

While the storm rages over Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying accepting HK$50 million (US$6.44 million) from an Australian firm, he could choose another path and follow the example of Fan Songqing, an anti-corruption official in Guangzhou – and make a voluntary public declaration of his assets.

In January last year, Fan submitted a proposal to the annual meeting of the city’s National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) which called for public officials and their families to declare their assets. Fan was then deputy secretary general of the city’s CPPCC.

Then, over the virulent opposition of his wife and daughter, he gave the media a list of the family assets – a home of 74 square metres in an apartment building.

He was the first civil servant in Guangdong province to make such a declaration. In the autumn this year, he published at his own expense three volumes, totalling 1.3 million characters, of his anti-corruption work of the last 10 years.

Fan has been campaigning for this for 12 years. “Practice is the only standard of truth,” he said. “Declaration of assets by public officials is the only standard of a real anti-corruption campaign.”

The lack of such a regulation is the most blatant defect of the anti-corruption campaign launched by President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

It was not discussed during the March national meetings of the NPC and CPPCC and there is no draft legislation during the current five-year plan of the NPC. This is evidence of the overwhelming opposition within the Communist Party and government.

The United Nations Convention against Corruption, which has been ratified by 166 countries, requires a legal framework for asset declarations of government officials. Among countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 86 require top leaders to disclose private assets.

Under a law passed in Taiwan in 1993, hundreds of public officials have to report their assets within three months of taking office. They include the president, vice-present, senior civil servants, high-ranking military officers and members of parliament.

The lack of a law in China is the main reason the public suspect the honesty of their officials. They support Xi’s campaign but see it as much a power struggle as anti-corruption.

“We all know our public servants are corrupt,” said Wang Guoming, an office worker in Guangzhou. “How else can they fund houses, cars and living expenses for themselves and their families.”

A native of Hunan, Fan worked as a teacher, a soldier and a journalist before moving to Guangzhou in 1994. Four years later, he joined the city’s disciplinary inspection (anti-corruption) body.

In making his declaration, he was mocked by his colleagues and strongly criticised by his wife and daughter who warned against the risks of drawing attention to himself.

He angered them further by refusing to fund a single table at the banquet for his daughter’s wedding in October last year or leave "goodbye money" on the grave of his father-in-law who died this July.

He Wenkai, 46, deputy procurator general of Fangchengguang in Guangxi region is one of a handful of officials to have followed Fan’s example.

He put his family assets online – a monthly salary of 6,400 yuan, his wife’s salary at a leading hospital of 9,000 yuan, two properties in the city and two cars worth a total of 380,000 yuan and savings of 150,000 yuan.

“As a procurator, I have many opportunities to take bribes. Lawyers and defendants have given me envelopes of cash, a common practice. I rejected them or returned the cash,” he said.

His honesty has not had a good outcome.

“Colleagues and friends have started to distance themselves from me,” He said. “In public places, people took out mobile phones and took photos of me and my wife. Will this invite trouble? Many texted me, asking me to keep a low profile and stay away from social media.”

“Public disclosure of assets by civil servants is one of the most efficient ways to fight corruption,” said Zheng Tiancheng, a party chief of a cooperative in Hantao county, Hunan province who has also declared his assets.

“It is something desired by the people of the whole nation. It will come sooner or later. It is used as an effective tool by most countries in the world.”

For his part, Leung insists he had done nothing wrong, morally or legally, by accepting HK$50 million in a deal with Australian engineering firm UGL and has no need to apologise.

But in Hong Kong even more than in the mainland, public officials must not only be honest but must be seen to be honest.

Leung could learn from the example of these three brave officials who have paid a price for their principles – but earned the respect of an angry and suspicious public.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.