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Why it’s time for Chinese leaders to declare their assets

After a one-week delay, the Communist Party leadership on Wednesday night released the full text of the two documents approved at the sixth plenum of the party’s central committee – documents that aim to strengthen the party’s governance and the conduct of its members, particularly senior officials.

Publication of the two documents may have been overshadowed by the plenum decision to formally endorse President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) as “core” of the party leadership – an issue that has since been a source of intense speculation over Xi’s political ambitions – but the significance of the two documents should not be underestimated.

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The documents, though innocuously entitled “The norms of political life in the party under current conditions” and “Regulations on intra-party supervision” , appear to contain tough measures to supervise party members and boost their loyalty.

They also confirm reports that the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s main anti-graft watchdog, will be given more power and authority to enforce these new rules.

The first document on “The norms of political life” is a very stern code of conduct which clearly defines what the leadership calls “red lines” for party members regarding a wide range of issues.

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These range from how party officials should perform their duties and pledge their loyalty to how they and their family members should stay clean. It is aimed at tackling a range of problems Xi has identified within the party, including lax discipline, detachment from the people, arbitrariness and inaction, acts of individualism, factionalism, money worshipping and violations linked to formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance, and so on.

Moreover, the new rules specifically target the party’s most powerful elites, including the 300 or so members of the party’s central committee, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee, according to Xi. His remarks explaining how the two documents were drafted at the plenum were also published on Wednesday night.

Xi said better supervision of those top officials was vital to the party’s functioning and that they must uphold higher standards and lead by example.

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He said the leadership was drafting detailed measures to ensure those officials would comply with the new rules.

Official media have hailed the two documents as a significant move to institutionalise the measures of Xi’s unprecedented anti-graft drive which has led to the disciplinary punishments of more than one million party members in addition to several hundreds of thousands of party officials who were jailed on corruption charges over the past three years.

Those numbers may sound big but they are a fraction of the party’s total number of 88 million members, more than the population of Germany.

There is no doubt that the party leadership is set to launch a nationwide publicity drive to promote the documents as the panacea for the party’s chronic ills in a bid to bolster public confidence in the party’s legitimacy.

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While the new rules should be welcomed, there are still valid concerns over a lack of transparency and checks and balances to ensure they can be properly and effectively enforced.

The rules appear largely focused on the party’s internal mechanism to cleanse itself of those ills even though they make clear party members should volunteer themselves to scrutiny of the public and media. But the latest efforts to strengthen the party’s control over the media and internet don’t augur well in this regard.

While the new rules rightly target the top officials – and the details of how the rules will be implemented are on the way – it remains unclear how they can be enforced in an opaque culture where challenging the authority of top officials is taboo and a veil of secrecy surrounds them and their family members.

Over the years, frequent allegations of rampant corruption involving the close family members of former and current leaders, some of them detailed in overseas media, have proved a major source of public anger and also a keen embarrassment to the leadership.

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Many people inside and outside the party have long urged the leadership to adopt measures to compel officials, particularly senior ones, to publicly declare their assets and those of their immediate relatives – a proven weapon in deterring corruption elsewhere in the world. But this is missing from the myriad rules which merely require officials to file on a voluntary basis. Some official media have previously dismissed the idea as a Western method unsuitable for China but this is nonsense. Declaration of assets by Chinese leaders and their immediate relatives could do much to bolster public confidence.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper