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.