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To stop covert corruption
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Laws do not work where violators abound. That may explain why those in power choose to get extra benefits by abusing their power en masse, and that they never consider it a form of corruption when more officials are involved.

That dozens of government officials were recently exposed for buying houses meant for displaced residents at much lower prices in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, is a case in point.

The case was revealed on the Internet, with details about those involved. The government has verified it with preliminary investigations. Further investigations will be conducted before penalties are meted out to the offenders.

The incident actually took place five years ago, when residential houses were demolished for urban renewal in the city's downtown areas. The displaced residents were supposed to have moved back to the new residential buildings.

However, dozens of local officials from different government departments bought these houses for much lower prices when some displaced residents were yet to move back.

Even if there were indeed extra homes, these should have been sold on the market. There was no reason for under-the-table deals, which benefited only those in power.

This is apparently a form of corruption. Getting extra houses at lower prices through the abuse of power seems to have become a covert form of corruption.

If left uncovered, the perpetrators may make money by selling the houses at market prices. If uncovered, it could only constitute a procedural irregularity rather than a crime. The culprits do not run the risk of being imprisoned or being seriously punished.

In one instance, a district leader in Shanghai was exposed for having 14 houses registered under his name, his wife's and his son's. He paid for the buildings, only at much lower prices, with the biggest price discrepancy for a single house amounting to as much as 4 million yuan.

This official has been arrested for taking bribes. But what of the dozens in Wenzhou?

Apparently, a lack of transparency in these government-funded housing projects has provided enough room for the abuse of power. That it took five years for the case to be uncovered speaks volumes for how these projects were managed without transparency.

The local government has decided to organize a group to conduct further investigations into the case. But it is not enough - transparency is needed for the building and selling of these houses as local residents have the right to know how their money is being spent.

As the battle against corruption intensifies, it is quite likely that corrupt elements will develop new ways to take bribes or embezzle public money.

It is important to catch and punish them in a more effective manner. But it is even more important to narrow down the space for the abuse of power by increasing transparency in governance.

To that effect, the Shanghai government has done the right thing by recently requiring all government officials to declare their property.

(China Daily April 15, 2009)

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