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Property declaration: pros & cons
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Property declaration by officials in the public sector is a hot topic this year. A compulsory property declaration regime, which has served well in many developed countries, is a mighty weapon against corruption. Lessons from other countries reveal that a sound property declaration system has at least four significant features. First, a specific law or a chapter on the anti-corruption law is made to take on the issue of property declaration. Second, reports of officials' properties must be strictly inspected. Third, the content of property declaration should be made public. And fourth, the officials who conceal or manipulate property status must be penalized.

Though China has introduced a stipulation on property declaration in 1995, it has not been effective in curbing corruption due to lack of these four features. Almost no grave corruption case has been detected through this stipulation, and many venal officials have easily passed the property declaration every year until they are found corrupt. When the current property declaration system cannot deter the officials from corruption or help discover the corrupt cases, we need to examine the flaws in the system and reform it.

The current system falls short of three key elements, i.e. inspection of property reports, publication of outcomes and penalties on those who cheat. Why were these crucial elements not incorporated into property declaration? There are quite a few barriers hampering the system from functioning well.

First, there is a dearth of honesty and credibility among many officials. People once expected that all officials would have honestly declared their incomes and property status when the property declaration stipulation was made. Many of them, however, did not do justice to the expectation and failed to report their incomes truthfully.

Second, when the stipulation was made, it was not clear who would monitor the property status of officials. Under the current system, the property reports of officials are only exposed to higher authorities, and the officials at the same level are not eligible to obtain the information, let alone the general public. Since the agencies that could inspect the property declaration are limited, there is less likelihood of detecting frauds and irregularities.

Third, there is not a credit record system covering all citizens in the banks. Hence, it is easier for corrupt officials to conceal and transfer their illegal incomes.

Fourth, it is feared that publication of officials' incomes might have a negative impact on society, because the incomes of officials are much higher than that of ordinary people.

Fifth, the property declaration system may affect the interests of the designers of the system. Few officials would like to make public their incomes and properties due to the rife off-the-book incomes. Since officials write the rules, naturally they do not want to devise an effective system that might damage their own interests.

A recent instance disclosed the attitudes of officials to the property declaration system. Earlier this year, Altay prefecture in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region became the first place in the mainland to make public the incomes of officials. When the officials in Altay and other areas in Xinjiang were asked in a survey about their attitudes to the new regulation, 70 percent of them opposed it, and only one in ten favored it. The survey confirmed the guess that many officials were afraid of making public their incomes because they had grabbed unclean money. Since the publication of officials' incomes has faced noticeable opposition in a prefecture, people can imagine the immense difficulties if the regulation is to be extended to the whole country.

Despite the obstacles, many regions followed suit and adopted similar property declaration regulations, such as Cixi in Zhejiang province, Yibin in Sichuan province, and Liuyang in Hunan province. There have been some flaws in the regulations: in Altay, part of the information has been kept secret, and no official confessed to having received gifts; in Cixi, the income status declared by official was only released within government departments.

Though the flaws remain, promoting the property declaration system has been a firm resolve of the central government. Earlier this year, Premier Wen Jiabao responded to netizens that it was correct to make public the officials' properties, and the government was actively working on it. In May, officials from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the Communist Party of China revealed that the CCDI was making regulations on property declaration and the experience of Altay would be a crucial reference.

An effective and solid property declaration system can be made based on the current system plus several crucial new elements. The reports of officials' properties should be carefully examined to verify their authenticity. The information should be gradually released first within the government departments and then to the general public. The officials who commit fraud or concealment should be rigorously punished according to laws and regulations. And all information must be recorded for future inspection.

Property declaration is a way to let public power prevail. Improving the property declaration system could be a vital and forceful part of our anti-corruption campaign.

The author is a professor at the Party School of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China.

(China Daily August 28, 2009)

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