NOTE: An edited version of this piece appeared in the Shenzhen Daily.
As every person in Shenzhen who has a balcony knows, sunlight is a great disinfectant. If you place a pair of smelly sneakers in the bright light of the sun for a few hours they will be good as new. The same principle applies to much of life, both public and private.
The now infamous case of Yang Dacai, a government official in Shaanxi Province, smiling at the scene of a deadly traffic accident while wearing a very expensive watch led to netcitizens publishing even more pictures of Yang wearing some 11 different expensive watches. This led to Yang’s dismissal, but the matter didn’t end there. A college student from Hubei Province filed suit to have Yang’s salary disclosed. Ultimately it is the people who pay the salaries of government officials. The people should have a right to know how their money is being used.
Recently the U.S. government tried to deflect blame from its mistakes in Libya where 4 citizens including the ambassador were murdered. The government first said it was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against a short film that insulted Mohammed, and couldn’t have been foreseen. That was a lie, and the lie was quickly exposed by people on the ground in Libya who posted pictures of armed militia members at the embassy on the internet. Armed militia don’t go to a peaceful unorganized demonstration carrying RPGs. The rest of the media quickly began investigating, and within a few few weeks the U.S. government admitted the attack was well a planned terrorist assault and the embassy should have been better prepared. The movie had nothing to do with it.
Cai Bin, a member of the Guangzhou government has been exposed on the internet for owing 21 real estate properties worth 40 million yuan (6.3 million USD) Many are registered to his wife and other family members. When asked about it Cai refused to give complete answers. His salary is officially secret, but it is estimated to be about 10,000 yuan/month ($1,600 USD). The existence of these properties was uncovered by private citizens who posted the information on the internet. The postings led to official investigations.
Li Dejin, an official in the Communications Department, of Fujian Provence came under fire recently when he replaced a story that was to be published describing his expensive clothing and watch with an advertisement. The author vented his anger on his Weibo page.
Every few weeks a story similar to those above appears online or in the newspapers. There are more than 660,000 government employees who have been investigated for various violations in the past five years. Some of the most flagrant violations make the papers or the web. There are surely many more, and just a small number are caught.
If the government becomes more open about its officials’ salaries, responsibilities, and financial affairs, it won’t end corruption, but it may slow it down. Instead of buying expensive watches, clothing or cigarettes, corrupt officials will figure out ways to hide their ill gotten gains. The State Council has asked government workers to follow a frugal life style. In other words, don’t show off your wealth. Hide it.
In the October 22 issue of the Global Times it was reported that the Ministry of Railways (MOR) was stonewalling request to disclosed the bidding process for it online ticketing system. There is no reason these details should be suppressed. That is that something was not quite right about how the MOR went about the procurement process. Sunlight from the beginning to the end would have prevented public suspicion of how the public’s money was spent.
In the bad old days these exposes might have been squashed and the reporters sent to labor camps. In today’s world, thanks to the internet, it is hard to suppress the scandals. Still, the government needs to be more transparent. The government needs to let the sunshine in.
The inner workings of Chinese businesses also need to be exposed to sunlight. Just recently the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) ruled against allowing the mergers of seven companies because of irregularities in the market value reports. The CSRC will announce new regulations on transparency soon, as well as making public the results of its examinations.
The problem with the lack of transparency in businesses is it allows companies to list their shares based on unrealistic valuations. This raises nice sums of money for the companies, but it unfair to those who purchase the shares.
There are several Chinese companies listed on American stock exchanges which are under investigation for inflating their values using shady accounting tricks.
Netcitizens, cell phones, and general public awareness are not enough to end corruption. In both business and government, sunlight is the best disinfectant. While transparency in what is going on will not end all corruption, but it will certainly help.