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The financial disclosures of public officials have made the headlines in both China and the United States this week.
On Tuesday, the White House released US President Barack Obama's financial disclosure documents, which revealed the first family holds assets worth somewhere between $2.6 million and $8.3 million.
On the same day, an article in Beijing-based Study Times declared that "an asset disclosure system for public officials on the Chinese mainland will take at least 10 years".
The author was quite right in pointing out some of the major challenges facing the introduction of an effective disclosure system: "gray income", bribes in kind whose real values are hard to measure, the tax system, loopholes in the banking registration system and lax enforcement of the many income and asset disclosure rules announced since 1994 by the Party and the central government.
While giving several recommendations for closing major loopholes in the current disclosure system, the article concluded that the implementation of a financial disclosure system for public officials would take time - at least 10 years.
Although the author did add a last sentence that a much shorter process could be expected if the central authorities are determined, the public's response to the article in the last two days reflects their dissatisfaction at the prospect of waiting another 10 years for a sound financial disclosure system for public officials, given the frequent reports of official corruption in the country.
But even if it does take 10 years to implement such a system, we should not tolerate any inaction in the coming years as we have in the past. China simply cannot afford to let corrupt officials run wild for another decade.
Yes, corrupt officials are getting smarter as the author argued. But we must simply outsmart them by closing as many loopholes as we can and by getting tough on violators. The government must demonstrate its resolve to fight corruption.
A study released a month ago by the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative of the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that disclosure by public officials of their income, assets and interests should be mandatory if the fight against corruption is to succeed.
The first global study of financial disclosure laws and practices, "Public Office, Private Interests: Accountability Through Income and Asset Disclosure" calls for a stronger commitment to income and asset disclosure to curb the use of public office for private gain and to help manage conflicts of interest in the public sector. The study also finds that asset disclosure systems become more effective when there is a credible threat that violations will be detected and punished.
In fact, the document cites the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which was ratified by 159 countries including China. The convention says countries must endeavor to ensure that their public services are subject to safeguards that promote efficiency and transparency, and public servants should be subject to requirements for financial and other disclosures, and appropriate disciplinary measures.
Many countries, in Europe, Asia and Africa, both the rich and poor, have successfully implemented such a system and China can also have an effective disclosure system installed in the coming years once the leadership shows its determination.
While it may be naive to believe that such a system will put an end to corruption, it will surely deter officials from abusing their power for personal gain.
The Study Times article has sounded a deafening wake-up call. The increasingly impatient public has waited long enough, they want to see tough action, not flowery words.
The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily USA. E-mail: email@example.com
(China Daily 05/18/2012 page8)