Little Mister Sunshine

For the last couple of weeks, Beijing has been all aflutter with the annual pomp and circumstance of the NPC & CPPCC meetings. (I would argue that, even if you don't speak Chinese, "两会" is a far more manageable mouthful than that clot of "abbreviations"...) Hands were shaken, pictures were taken, and 'sunshine' was...bakin'? (Cringe-worthy, I know.)

The 'sunshine' in question, of course, is the eternally-gestating "Sunshine Bill." (阳光法案) Conceived, by some reports, as early as 1995, the "Declaration of Income for Leading Cadres in Party and Government Agencies at County (Department) Level and Higher" was, in short, designed to increase accountability. If a high-ranking official were forced to report and itemize his sky-high income, perhaps the emergence of a second Chen Liangyu ( 陈良宇) could be prevented.

To an outsider, it seems like a no-brainer: what better way to distance oneself from the well-worn stereotype of the man-purse-carrying, Zhongnanhai-smoking, preternaturally-black-hair-having, corrupt official...than by being the guy who brought to vote the anti-corruption bill?! Let he who [wants to appear to be] without sin cast the first stone!

Not so, it seems, as more than fourteen years on, China's legal code is still experiencing heavy cloud cover.

So when I read, recently, the venerably cunning work of Caijing's Wang Heyan, I thought perhaps I had found the source of the delay: the proposed sunlight is NOT BRIGHT ENOUGH!

At least, that's what one--maybe too-literal--interpretation of his words might indicate (I've translated an excerpt of Wang's article here):

“Chairman X, what is your take on a system to publicly report the personal property of officials?”

He answered, grinning, “Unfortunately, I haven't looked into this question.”

I asked, “In Aletai, Xinjiang and Cixi, Zhejiang they are publicly reporting officials' personal property. Does your province have any intention to try this?”

He said, “I don't know.”

“Has the group discussed this over the last few days?” I asked again.

He walked as he said, “No. Our group as a whole has not discussed this.”

I wasn't quite convinced. “Would you propose this kind of suggestion or motion?”

He asked me, in return, “No. If [officials' property] were reported publicly, why shouldn't the common people report their property? Why shouldn't the enterprise bosses have to report their profits to their workers?”

“Why shouldn't the common people report their property?” I could hardly believe my ears, and quickly asked, “'enterprise bosses'? Do you mean the managers of state-owned enterprises?”

I clearly heard his reply, “No, I mean the bosses of the privately-owned companies.”

Shocked and speechless, I asked no further questions.

Maybe he does mean that, in addition to government officials, private sector officials should also report their earnings. If the hourly wage-earners knew what their bosses were taking home, maybe the gaps would not get so big, or at least increase more slowly.

But more likely, he means Chinese officials should somehow remain above the law.

Either way, this was a shocking moment of candor from a Chinese official: it's almost impossible for journalists to get comments that aren't scripted and vetted, several times over. So brazen were Journalist Wang's tactics--tactics that included publishing a potentially-damning conversation with a high-ranking official--that though Wang most definitely knew the identity and home province of the official with whom he spoke, he dared not publish it.

Fourteen years into unofficial debates, some are still arguing that now is not the right time for a law like this...society is not ready...officials themselves are not ready, the chorus of nay-sayers sings.

Of course the cynical response is, "they're corrupt, and they don't want to be found out." I don't deny that that is certainly a motivating factor for some. But another of the protests lodged against this bill is that, if implemented, there is no official it would not touch; everyone is guilty of some sort of graft, strictly speaking. So if law-breaking is much more pervasive than law-abiding (even though the law is only hypothetical at this point), enforcing the law in a way that is perceived as fair becomes almost impossible. At this stage in Chinese politics, wouldn't this law easily become a tool for political persecution?

As always, I want to know which parts of this issue resonate with you. Is the proposed law the right tool for fighting corruption? Are an official's assets his own business, if he is otherwise law-abiding? In a culture that can bestow gigantic financial reward on the craftiest, if unethical, few (I'm looking at YOU, American financial industry!), how can public service attract a 21st-century
Zhu Geliang* (诸葛亮) without some promise of 灰色收入 (under-the-table, "gray" income)?

*I hate linking to Wikipedia, and I'm sorry.


  1. In my view the problems of corruption are too far reaching to be solved by a simple declaration of assets. Assets can be hidden, favors can be extended for rewards coming after an official leaves office...in general I think that this law would be an inconvenience for the good guys and would not prevent the bad guys from getting rich off of the people.

    despite that the journalist did a good job to get taht official talking!

  2. The law, if passed, will ultimately become a farce, another one in a string of laws in a land where laws passed by bureaucrats are enforced with the notion that they are above the commoners. They'll just find some loophole around it. better yet, local enforcement will be in on it. As the movie says "Who watches the watchmen?" 中纪委?hardly...It'll just be even more lip service payment to an already jaded system - I'll bet the local citizens will just get something more to be cynical about as the local papers publish the publicized income of individuals.

  3. 阳光法案迟迟不能“阳光”起来,我觉得真正的原因还不是在于立法的准备是否成熟;更重要的是“执法”的环境和体制还没有能够脱离行政的干预而最终阳光起来。试想一下,即使“阳光法案”通过了,难道地方的法院和检察院就能有效地执行?到了最后,光辉的“阳光”法案很有可能就成了“只准州官放火,不准百姓点灯”的最好诠释。所以中国的反腐问题的根源还是在于权力制约的层面,不是说完全照搬美国的三权分立方式,但是至少应该探索一个“具有中国特色的”权利制约体制。而这种体制的核心就是立法与执法体制更强的独立性。刚刚看到一则消息,中国商务部长以反垄断法为依据,明确否决可口可乐公司收购汇源的计划;其理由是要“保护消费者”。这个否决的过程就真的尊重了法律了吗?(反垄断法主要是从竞争的层面判断垄断行为,有具体的数字性的标准,好像“汇源 ”一案很难定性为垄断行为) 或许它是尊重了所谓的“网络民意”和爱国主义,但是如果从政府高层就开始不尊重法律公正和权威,不尊重法律系统的独立性和客观性,中国的法治环境就无法得到根本的改善。汇源一案只是关系到我们喝的果汁,或者是某些人爱国的情感或面子。我们不妨想像一下,“阳光法案”出台以后,对于这抹关系到千千万万个官员的前程甚至身家性命的“阳光”,行政体系的干预又会是个什么局面?愿阳光在没有乌云的天空中照耀,愿法律在没有行政的干预中辉煌!

  4. Anonymous11:40

    What does it matter what the law says if everything the public learns about it is scripted and vetted anyway? Seems to me that the law itself wouldn't promote accountability, but uncensored access to that information might.

  5. Anonymous23:51

    Working in fiscal policy in China, I am interested in this posting. At the root of the question you are getting at, and the policy in general, there is a far bigger problem, which is China's fiscal structure. In particular, China's tax structure is problematic and discourages transparency across public and private sectors. VAT, excise tax, and business tax all make up the top 60 percent of tax revenue in China. There is no capital gains tax, there is no property tax, there is a very poorly administered income tax, and the Ministry of Finance undercalculates the tax burden significantly in efforts to raise certain taxes that increase the opaqueness of intergovernmental tranfers and tax-revenue redistribution. If you compare China's situation to much of the OECD, on VAT is in the top three consistantly. People will always find a way around transparency laws. In my opinion, the dynamics of tax structure, however boring a topic, really are at the core of China's transparency problem.

  6. 非常同意Fei的说法,很透彻!“阳光”法案需要一个公平,公正,人人尊重法律的环境。只要存在人大与法的环境,“阳光”法案就只能处于“阴天”的状态。如何改善环境,应该是我们亟待思考的!

  7. Anonymous06:06




  8. Anonymous21:30

    If the argument against the law mainly stems from concern about the pervasiveness of corruption in the past acquisition of assets, it seems like a good first step would be for government officials to start by reporting their annual income. Though corrupt officials could continue to lie about their income levels, it seems like this would be an intermediate step to take before eventually moving to full reporting of all property.