Amid Growing Graft Problem, Some Call for Dawn of Sunshine Law

Calls for government officials to disclose personal and family assets are growing louder, as a large number of corruption cases are uncovered every year.

A local official in Hunan Province published a list of his personal assets on Weibo, the Chinese version of twitter, on October 30. Zhang Tiancheng, deputy secretary of the Communist Party's politics and legal affairs committee in Hanshou, told Web users that his monthly salary was 2,981 yuan and he received an annual bonus 4,732 yuan. His wife, he reported, made about 30,000 yuan a year, and the family had one inherited house and a flat that cost 400,000 yuan.

The value of the flat has risen significantly, Zhang admitted in his Weibo post, and he paid a monthly mortgage of 777 yuan.

Zhao's disclosure covered his children. He gave his daughter a 220,000 yuan dowry, for which he still owed lenders about 40,000 yuan.

Many in China feel corruption is the biggest problem the government and ruling Communist Party faces. At the party's recently concluded 18th National Congress, former party general secretary Hu Jintao warned graft could cause the collapse of the party.

(Read More: Expose on Wen Jiabao's Wealth—Storm in a Teacup?)

Many in the country would like to see officials release information about their assets and are hopeful a national "Sunshine Law" will force cadres to bring information about their wealth out into the daylight. Despite this, officials like Zhang who voluntarily open up their family books to outsiders are rare compared with number of public servants found to be corrupt every year.

Net users have made exposing cases of corruption something of a hobby.

Recently, Yang Dacai, the head of the Work Safety Department in Shaanxi Province, became notorious in China for smiling at the scene of a fatal traffic accident. He tried to play down the incident, but the situation grew worse for him when Net users noticed a nice watch on his wrist.

They started digging and found that Yang owned at least five luxury watches. He insisted that they had all been bought with his own income, but even more timepieces were discovered, each more expensive than the last.

The public's investigation eventually led to a probe by the local party anti-corruption watchdog and Yang's downfall. On September 21, the watchdog said Yang had been detained for serious violation of the law.

(Read More: Changing China: The New Leaders)

A 1995 decree issued by the central government and the Communist Party says officials in mid-level positions and higher must submit an annual report on their personal assets to internal government monitors.

"It's not open to the public, so the reporting process becomes mostly perfunctory," said Wang Yukai, a professor in the public management department at the Academy of Governance, an institute of higher education in Beijing that trains civil servants.

"The result is many corrupt officials flee overseas with massive illegal gains."

Cases like Yang's show that when the internal reporting system doesn't serve its function, scrutiny from the general public, especially on the Internet, fills in, Wang said. "This is an extreme method, which in turn is pushing the government to set up an assets disclosure mechanism open to the public."

Local Experiments

Since 2009, many local governments started their own versions of asset disclosure programs. Most are at the very bottom of China's administrative hierarchy – at the prefecture and county level – and do not involve the central government.

(Read More: Why China's New Conservative Leaders Will Be Reformists)

Officials in Aletai, in the Xinjiang region, Qianjiang in Chongqing, Yinchuan in the Ningxia region, and Huai'an, Jiangsu Province, have all installed disclosure systems. In addition, 16 counties have a similar mechanism.

These experiments vary in the degree of disclosure. Most choose to disclose the income of newly promoted, low-level cadres. Although welcomed by the public and the media, many of these pilot programs have a short lifespan.

Wang Xixin, a law professor at Peking University, said there were several reasons the trials failed. Usually such programs were introduced by one or two influential local officials. Since no law or party regulation requires such disclosures, officials in the area strongly resist the idea, and without any institutional backing, the fate of programs depends on a few officials, Wang said.

Aletai's disclosure program was set up by Wu Weiping, the head of the local discipline committee. He put in place a disclosure system, set up a website dedicated to it, and gave the public his phone number if they had questions or complaints. However, Wu died of an illness seven months after the system was launched. The website isn't accessible anymore.

The effectiveness of these local experiments is also questionable.

"Newly promoted officials have not been exposed to power yet, and it's easy to ask them to disclose their income," said Han Deyun, a delegate to the National Party Congress, the nation's top legislature, and a long-time advocate for a disclosure system.

"This measure is preventative in nature, with no effect on those with actual power."

Wang says disclosure must start at the top. "Without the determination of the top leaders, it's hard to set up related rules and laws, and hard to overcome obstacles in implementation."

Han says the party elite does, in fact, have a plan. "The top leaders have made up their mind on this."

In August Han received a written reply to questions he had posed to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the nation's anti-graft watchdog. It told him "there should be a disclosure system," and now the question was "how to forge a plan for disclosure with Chinese characteristics that fits China's current condition."

Several high-level party officials said on the sidelines of the recent 18th party congress that they were in favor of "Sunshine Laws" regarding such disclosures.

Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, said on November 9 that if the Central Committee issued such rules, he would take the initiative in releasing information about his personal assets. Tian Lipu, director of the country's patent office, voiced similar sentiments.

Wang Yang, the party boss of Guangdong and a member of the Politburo, said his province was experimenting with asset-declaration systems and would continue to explore various methods.

However, when dawn will actually come for a national "Sunshine Law" is an open question.