While lawyers acting for Wen Jiabao’s family threatened legal action against The New York Times following David Barboza’s investigation of their business dealings, the premier himself has taken a different tack. South China Morning Post reported on Monday that Wen has requested an official probe into the article’s claims in an apparent final effort to push through transparency reforms.
According to […] reports, Wen had seized the opportunity to demand that a long-overdue “sunshine law” – which would require a public declaration of family assets by senior leaders – be finally put into effect.
He also said he would be happy to make public his family’s assets.
This would appear to be more than just an attempt by the image-conscious outgoing premier to defend his name, analysts say.
They say it shows he is keen to use the inquiry as one last chance to push forward the long-stalled “sunshine law”. Professor Zhu Lijia, of the Chinese Academy of Governance, said: “It is a ground-breaking step towards greater government openness and transparency.”
He added that if approved, the “sunshine law” could become a milestone in the party’s uphill battle against endemic corruption. But Professor He Weifang, a law expert at Peking University, remains sceptical about the feasibility of Wen’s reported proposal.
The implementation of existing transparency laws does not offer encouraging precedents. On one hand, as Barboza explained, the New York Times investigation was made possible by economic reforms providing public access to corporate records. But he also noted signs that this earlier progress is now being eroded:
China recently tightened access to corporate information, possibly because of a growing number of corporate fraud scandals, but also media investigations into the fortunes held by the relatives of political leaders, including the former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai.
In Beijing, for much of this year, it has been difficult to obtain corporate records from the local bureau of the S.A.I.C.
At Tea Leaf Nation, David Caragliano explained how the failure of existing transparency measures has fuelled the rise of environmental protests, most recently in Ningbo:
The anxieties driving these protesters, mostly members of China’s urban middle class, stem in large part from the fact that their government has left them in the dark about its plans. State administrative agency determinations on environmental and health standards are typically not public. In general, local government decisions to award, initiate or regulate industry take place in a black box.
Few protesters may be aware that there is a system in place, at least on paper, to allow citizens access to the inner workings of their government. The Regulation on Open Government Information (OGI) was put in place in 2008 to shine sunlight on the workings of government and to mitigate popular grievances about lack of accountability. OGI is supposed to provide a comprehensive solution, but in practice low levels of compliance have negated its effectiveness.
[…] Agencies routinely fail to respond to OGI requests, and when they do respond, they sometimes cite rationales that appear arbitrary and even deceitful. For example, a 2010 regulation requires provincial-level environmental protection bureaus to disclose enterprises that are major emitters of dioxins. Only four of 31 bureaus have made the disclosure. Even after receiving an OGI request, none of the remaining 27 bureaus provided the information.
A recent study of responses to information requests on the “three public expenses”—trips abroad, official vehicles, and banquets and receptions—was similarly discouraging. From Guo Kai at Global Times:
The group, sponsored by the Center for Public Participation Studies and Support at Peking University, sent individual requests for per capita spending information to 42 government bodies at cabinet level or below, but received only nine positive responses, the Legal Daily reported Friday.
[…] Among the government bodies that refused to offer the information, 15 said their reports were undergoing the approval, and 11 said information on per capita expenditures is not among the items covered. Another seven failed to respond at all.
[…] “The survey result reflects the attitude of these government bodies toward publishing government information,” Ye Qing, deputy director of the Hubei Provincial Bureau of Statistics, told the Global Times. Ye noted that, although publishing the information was mandated by the law, current regulations offer no punishment for not doing so.
The prospects for real transparency on leaders’ personal and family wealth may indeed be dim, but The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore reported that at least one other official has taken the initiative.
Zhang Tiancheng, the deputy secretary of Hanshou county’s Politics and Law Committee in Hunan province, said his total annual income totalled 34,030 yuan (£3402) and his wife’s was 30,000 yuan. He also listed the price of his home, and the 70,000 yuan he had given his daughter to help her buy an apartment in the central city of Changsha.
“He dares to do what the others dare not,” wrote one approving commenter on Weibo. “Those millions of officials, please follow suit”.