The proposed extension of five-year imprisonment to 10 years for the crime of possessing large sums of unaccounted assets is believed to be a response to the long-standing question of the punitive effect of law in deterring corruption.
An amendment to the Criminal Law to this effect is under deliberation at the current session of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) and is quite likely to be adopted.
Whether imprisonment for five years is the right penalty for those who are unable - or refuse - to explain the sources of their huge sums of money has remained a controversy in the past 11 years since it was made a criminal offense in the Criminal Law in 1997.
Instead of bringing to justice those suspects who believe silence is the best way to escape punishment, the imprisonment of five years is believed to have become an umbrella which corruption suspects seek to use in order to protect themselves from being severely punished.
The Criminal Law stipulates that embezzlement of more than 100,000 yuan is a crime punishable with 10 years in prison and even capital punishment. But if a suspect remains silent about the source of a huge sum of money uncovered by police, who also cannot find where the money comes from, the charge for possessing the large sum of unjustifiable assets will keep the person in jail for at most five years.
And it is not fair that who confess their crimes are severely punished, while those who refuse to do so get much lighter penalties.
Many argue that such light punishment for this crime actually encourages more wannabe corrupt officials to take bribes or embezzle public funds. It also encourages those corrupt officials who are caught to tell lies or just keep silent about the crimes they have committed.
What is worse, the light punishment also indirectly protects bad elements involved in the crimes the apprehended ones have committed. Those who give bribes or buy their official positions will remain unexposed as long as the corruption suspects keep silent about their crimes.
This is why the leniency of the punishment for this crime has been under severe criticism. NPC deputies put forward motions time and again asking for an increase in the severity of this punishment so that corrupt officials who are caught will be deterred from telling lies or just keeping silent. This could also stop others from committing the same crimes.
Imprisonment for 10 years will be more severe punishment for this crime, but still not severe enough, many believe, to have a deterring effect and represent the fairness and justice of law.
With the fight against corruption an important mission for the country's economic development and social progress, the amendment may need to be further amended.
(China Daily August 27, 2008)