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Monday, 4 March 2013

Graft: Can China stop the rot?

Graft: Can China stop the rot?
After all the talk about fighting corruption, many feel that now is the time to act.

Anti-graft experts are hoping that China's new leadership will show real commitment by rolling out new measures at their political meetings over the next fortnight.

A lack of action, the experts feel, could hurt the government's credibility. The rousing rhetoric heard recently from new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Xi Jinping and disciplinary czar Wang Qishan has raised expectations of a breakthrough in the long-running struggle against graft.

Days after being named CCP chief last November, Xi spoke twice publicly against official waste and extravagance, according to Professor Li Yongzhong of Beijing's top school for anti-graft cadres. Xi's key message: Stop the rot before it leads to "the collapse of the Party and the downfall of the state".

In subsequent statements, he also extolled the "Three Cleans" - clean cadres, clean government, clean political system - and stressed his "anger at those who pilfer funds meant for the poor".

Yesterday, he also warned the CCP that it will be able to celebrate its 100th anniversary in eight years' time only if its cadres emulate virtuous officials in Chinese history. His published remarks were addressed to rising officials of the Central Party School on its 80th birthday.

Thus, hopes are high that he will do more at the national meetings than reiterate his resolve to "unswervingly curb corruption".

"The new leaders have put anti-corruption as the No.1 priority," said Beijing academic Hu Xingdou, an outspoken critic of official abuse of power. "I admire their resolve, but more is needed to purge the root of the problem."

Xi should also do more because anti-corruption efforts so far have been largely piecemeal and superficial, say experts.

Late last year, southern Guangdong province said officials in three areas, including Nansha in Guangzhou, would have to declare their assets under a pilot project slated to start after Chinese New Year. But late last month, a Guangzhou official said Nansha would start only after the political meetings.

"Guangdong has always led the rest of the country in reform experiments," noted Tsinghua University professor Ren Jianming. "But in this case, I believe it is limited; the central government is not prepared to show support to expand this trial nationwide."

The army and government agencies have banned liquor and lavish entertainment, while a de facto rule of "four dishes, one soup" for menus has surfaced among officials emulating Xi's simple tastes.

While such acts make headlines, people want tougher policies, in particular those targeted at illicit income and property.

Speculating in China's frothy real estate market has long been a lucrative way for officials to stow ill-gotten gains, noted Hu.

This, in turn, has made corruption a key culprit behind social ills from property bubbles to the yawning income gap, and mass protests over official land grabs.

Moreover, though Beijing has tried to show it is serious about curbing graft by handling more than half a million discipline cases since 2007, people like Zhen Ya, 40, feel the punishment meted out is hardly a deterrent.

Nearly 40 per cent of those convicted of graft, taking bribes or dereliction of duty last year did not go to jail.

Some analysts hope the Xi administration will expand a pilot scheme to implement property tax this year.

"This will impose a cost on officials and speculators with multiple empty properties," said government think-tank researcher Yuan Gangming.

Before that, Xi must grapple with a bigger challenge: ferreting out officials secretly holding multiple properties and assets. But moves by several cities including Guangzhou and Shenzhen to restrict public access to property ownership records to protect privacy have triggered criticism and raised doubts about the new leadership's resolve.

Ren warned that "social discontent is likely to rise if no concrete results to curb graft are seen within a year or two".

However, purging the complex roots of corruption in China is a long-drawn process that requires political will to sustain.

"At the very least, Xi and the top leadership have displayed their resolve to make a change," said Ren.