Door opens on sys­tem for of­fi­cial res­i­dences

Pol­icy aims to end abuse of hous­ing perks, Dong Fangyu re­ports in Bei­jing.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FOCUS -

Over the years, se­nior Chi­nese of­fi­cials have been granted ac­cess to govern­ment hous­ing dur­ing their term of of­fice. But in re­cent years, some have over­played their hands by abus­ing the sys­tem, and their ex­ces­sive hous­ing perks have caused pub­lic re­sent­ment and con­ster­na­tion. In the roll call of fallen of­fi­cials, much of the graft has re­volved around the govern­ment hous­ing sys­tem.

To curb of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion re­lated to hous­ing and end ex­trav­a­gance, China will “ex­plore ways to im­ple­ment an of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem”, ac­cord­ing to one of the pro­pos­als in a wide-rang­ing re­form blue­print ap­proved at a key Party meet­ing in November.

The no­tion of “an of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem”, al­beit with few de­tails so far, quickly caught the in­ter­est of the pub­lic, as peo­ple spec­u­lated about how such a re­form would im­pinge upon vested in­ter­ests.

Thirty years ago, most of­fi­cials shared sim­i­lar accommodation. The long-fos­tered im­age of mod­est twos­tory red-brick houses set among trees and lawns with a fish­pond in the cen­ter may be overly sen­ti­men­tal, but it fun­da­men­tally re­flects the accommodation avail­able to govern­ment of­fi­cials about 30 years ago, in the early days of the re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy.

Things have changed dra­mat­i­cally since then. In Oc­to­ber, China Eco­nomic Weekly re­ported that ap­prox­i­mately 100 se­nior of­fi­cials at pro­vin­cial or min­is­te­rial rank have fallen from grace since 2000. Of those, 53 were in­volved in bribery and cor­rup­tion re­lated to hous­ing.

In July, Liu Zhi­jun, the for­mer rail­way min­is­ter, re­ceived a sus­pended death sen­tence af­ter be­ing found guilty of the abuse of power and ac­cept­ing bribes, but what shocked the pub­lic most was Liu’s ad­mis­sion that he had amassed 374 houses, some in Bei­jing, oth­ers spread around the coun­try.

Mean­while, Cai Bin, a se­nior ur­ban­man­age­ment of­fi­cial in Guangzhou, Guang­dong prov­ince, widely known by the nick­name “Un­cle House”, was found to have cor­ruptly ac­quired more than 20 houses. Shortly af­ter “Un­cle House” was ex­posed, a “Sis­ter House” and an “Aun­tie House” ap­peared.

At a time when the life sav­ings of an or­di­nary cit­i­zen are far from enough to buy a house, re­peated scan­dals con­cern­ing of­fi­cial cor­rup­tion have prompted the au­thor­i­ties to over­haul the of­fi­cial hous­ing sys­tem.

On Dec 11, the coun­try’s anti-cor­rup­tion watch­dog gave the first de­tailed def­i­ni­tion of the pro­posed new regime. The CPC Cen­tral Com­mis­sion for Dis­ci­pline In­spec­tion said China will es­tab­lish a sys­tem un­der which the govern­ment will ar­range houses for se­nior of­fi­cials, their spouses and chil­dren dur­ing their ten­ure of of­fice. How­ever, the of­fi­cials will be re­quired to hand back the prop­er­ties when they leave their posts, so that they can be al­lo­cated to their suc­ces­sors.

Some ex­perts be­lieve the move con­sti­tutes a ma­jor break­through in the lead­er­ship’s fight against cor­rup­tion, while oth­ers re­main skep­ti­cal. Some mem­bers of the pub­lic have even sug­gested that the changes will sim­ply pro­vide more perks for the of­fi­cials.

Ac­cord­ing to Wang Yukai, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal re­form and E-gov­er­nance at the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Gov­er­nance in Bei­jing, “set­ting up an of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem is a fun­da­men­tal move to pre­vent of­fi­cials from trad­ing their power for wealth”.

Wang has led re­search projects into the accommodation pro­vided for of­fi­cials, the of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem in an­cient China, and cur­rent prac­tices abroad. His re­ports on im­ple­ment­ing an of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem in China were pre­sented to the govern­ment in July.

Ex­ploit­ing the gray ar­eas

As ev­i­dence of graft, he cited a cur­rent ex­am­ple from an of­fi­cial res­i­dence com­plex in an un­named prov­ince. Only 28 per­cent of the houses in the com­plex were be­ing used by in­cum­bent of­fi­cials, while the rel­a­tives of re­tired cadres ac­counted for 59 per­cent and the rel­a­tives of cadres who had been trans­ferred to other lo­cal­i­ties ac­counted for 7 per­cent. The other two houses in the com­plex were too di­lap­i­dated to be oc­cu­pied.

In un­der-reg­u­lated gray ar­eas such as this, some lo­cal gov­ern­ments have bought prime real es­tate and do­nated apart­ments to newly ar­rived se­nior of­fi­cials. Me­dia re­ports have also dis­closed pur­chases of clus­ters of vil­las.

When cadres are parachuted into posts in dif­fer­ent lo­cal­i­ties, they are as­signed new houses, but a lack of su­per­vi­sion and lax reg­u­la­tion mean they of­ten make the prop­er­ties their own by sim­ply adding them to their per­sonal port­fo­lios.

“That sort of thing is not un­com­mon,” said Wang. “These ‘adop­tions’ re­flect the ex­or­bi­tant hous­ing priv­i­leges en­joyed by of­fi­cials and the re­sul­tant loss of pub­lic as­sets.”

As a check against nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion, of­fi­cials are con­stantly reshuf­fled and moved around the coun­try, but iron­i­cally the sys­tem pro­vides the per­fect con­di­tions for them to amass prop­erty.

Ac­cord­ing to Yan Jirong, a po­lit­i­cal ex­pert at Pek­ing Univer­sity’s School of Govern­ment, “some cor­rupt of­fi­cials get new houses when they take of­fice in a new area, but they don’t move out of the house as­signed to them in their pre­vi­ous job. Thus, if they are trans­ferred fre­quently, they can ac­cu­mu­late a lot of prop­erty.”

Some of­fi­cials pass their govern­ment houses onto their chil­dren when they leave of­fice, or they sell or rent the prop­er­ties on the open mar­ket, mak­ing large prof­its.

Wu Hui, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of gov­er­nance at the Party School of the CPC Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, said the ex­trav­a­gance and cor­rup­tion dis­played by some of­fi­cials with re­spect to prop­erty have “tainted the im­age of Party cadres and govern­ment of­fi­cials in the eyes of the pub­lic”.

“The idea of an of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem has an his­tor­i­cal prece­dence. In an­cient China, lo­cal bu­reau­crats and their im­me­di­ate fam­i­lies lived in a res­i­dence at­tached to the ya­men, the of­fice where govern­ment busi­ness was con­ducted,” he said.

The use of of­fi­cial res­i­dences is com­mon prac­tice over­seas. In the United States, for ex­am­ple, accommodation is pro­vided for in­cum­bent se­nior of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent, vice-pres­i­dent, state gov­er­nors and vice-gov­er­nors and the may­ors of large cities.

In Ger­many, all se­nior of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the chan­cel­lor and govern­ment min­is­ters, are pro­vided with of­fi­cial res­i­dences, but only the chan­cel­lor is ac­tu­ally re­quired to live in one. Min­is­ters are free to choose where they live; in an of­fi­cial res­i­dence, in their own homes or in rented prop­er­ties sup­ported by a hous­ing sub­sidy.

The com­mon rule of thumb over­seas is that of­fi­cial res­i­dences are owned and main­tained by the state. Of­fi­cials are only al­lowed to live in them dur­ing their pe­riod of of­fice and are re­quired to va­cate if they re­sign, re­tire or are re­lo­cated.

The prac­tice over­seas

In for­eign coun­tries, the prac­tice is based on trans­parency of in­for­ma­tion about the per­sonal as­sets and salaries of se­nior of­fi­cials. More­over, a range of mech­a­nisms — trans­parency of as­sets, ju­di­cial su­per­vi­sion and scru­tiny by the pub­lic and me­dia — pro­vide a check on of­fi­cials seek­ing pri­vate gain through power.

How­ever, es­tab­lish­ing an of­fi­cial res­i­dence scheme in China could prove dif­fi­cult when the pro­posal be­comes a re­al­ity. Many skep­tics have claimed that it will be lit­tle more than a new way of pro­vid­ing perks and of­fi­cials still won’t be re­quired to pub­licly dis­close in­for­ma­tion about their per­sonal wealth. “Who knows how many prop­er­ties they al­ready pos­sess be­hind the scenes?” seems to be a com­mon ques­tion posed on on­line fo­rums.

“One pre­req­ui­site (of the pro­posed sys­tem) is that the prop­erty as­sets of of­fi­cials should be made pub­lic when they are as­signed a new of­fi­cial res­i­dence. Oth­er­wise, the sys­tem can­not be jus­ti­fied to the pub­lic,” said Wu from the Party School of the CPC Cen­tral Com­mit­tee.

An of­fi­cial cam­paign, called “Clear House”, has been im­ple­mented na­tion­wide. A re­cent move came in Hubei prov­ince when 712 units of il­le­gally oc­cu­pied hous­ing were taken back by the State, ac­cord­ing to the pro­vin­cial anti-graft au­thor­i­ties.

Pilot projects to pro­mote the disclosure of of­fi­cials’ as­sets and pro­mote clean gov­er­nance have also been launched in a num­ber of prov­inces, lead­ing a district govern­ment in Chongqing mu­nic­i­pal­ity to dis­close in­for­ma­tion on the per­sonal as­sets of 128 newly pro­moted of­fi­cials.

“Although no timetable has been set for full disclosure, of­fi­cials have al­ready been re­quired to pro­vide de­tailed, al­len­com­pass­ing in­for­ma­tion about their per­sonal as­sets to the Party, but not to the pub­lic”, said Ma Qingyu, a pro­fes­sor at the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Gov­er­nance. He said a highly an­tic­i­pated “uni­fied prop­erty reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem” will be launched by the mid­dle of next year. It will al­low in­for­ma­tion about of­fi­cials’ real es­tate in­ter­ests to be shared via a na­tion­wide net­work. “Some of­fi­cials are al­ready ill at ease with the new lead­er­ship’s strength­en­ing of the anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign,” he added.

In ad­di­tion to the chal­lenges re­gard­ing the disclosure of as­sets, the labyrinthine na­ture of the ad­min­is­tra­tion has caused many ex­perts to doubt the fea­si­bil­ity of an of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem. “The big­gest dif­fi­culty in

im­ple­ment­ing such a sys­tem lies in es­tab­lish­ing bound­aries be­tween the dif­fer­ent of­fi­cial lev­els and de­part­ments and de­cid­ing who is el­i­gi­ble for in­clu­sion,” said Ma.

El­i­gi­bil­ity cri­te­ria

Wang sug­gested that el­i­gi­bil­ity should be based on four cri­te­ria: Cases of na­tional dig­nity; the na­ture of an of­fi­cial’s work; the de­mands im­posed by that work; and the in­di­vid­ual’s con­tri­bu­tion to the fight against cor­rup­tion.

Un­der these prin­ci­ples, Wang sug­gested that at the high­est level, the sys­tem would cover the pres­i­dent, the premier, the chair­man of the NPC Stand­ing Com­mit­tee, the chair­man of the CPPCC Na­tional Com­mit­tee, mem­bers of the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee of the Polit­buro, and the heads of the Supreme Peo­ple’s Court and Supreme Peo­ple’s Procu­ra­torate. These po­si­tions re­flect na­tional dig­nity, he said.

As to the na­ture of the work, pro­vin­cial gov­er­nors and the heads of pro­vin­cial high courts and procu­ra­torates should be el­i­gi­ble, be­cause the oc­cu­pants of these posts are more likely to be tempted to wield their power for wealth.

Wang said the may­ors of cities and coun­ties, chiefs of the Party’s or­ga­ni­za­tion de­part­ments, heads of po­lice and the sec­re­taries of lo­cal dis­ci­pline in­spec­tion com­mis­sions should also be in­cluded in the sys­tem.

Pek­ing Univer­sity’s Yan said the pro­posed sys­tem would be in­com­pat­i­ble with the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. “Who will live where and in which res­i­dence? How do the of­fi­cial res­i­dences vary de­pend­ing on the se­nior­ity of of­fi­cials?” he asked.

“China has a huge num­ber of of­fi­cials and many have no fixed terms of ser­vice. Most se­nior of­fi­cials are ei­ther pro­moted by their su­pe­ri­ors or con­tinue in their cur­rent posts within the govern­ment un­til they re­tire,” he added.

Ma was also trou­bled. “The sit­u­a­tion is highly com­plex. Se­nior of­fi­cials can be from dif­fer­ent sec­tions, such as the Party, the govern­ment, the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress, the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence, not to men­tion army of­fi­cers and the heads of courts and procu­ra­torates,” he said.

By the end of last year, there were around 7 mil­lion pub­lic ser­vants in China, ac­cord­ing to the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of the Civil Ser­vice. There are no statis­tics about the num­ber of of­fi­cials at the very high­est level, but Ma es­ti­mated that there are more than 2,000 at the pro­vin­cial or min­is­te­rial level, and roughly 68 on the very top rung of the po­lit­i­cal lad­der, such as State coun­cilors, vice-pres­i­dents and mem­bers of the polit­buro.

“It would be bet­ter to se­verely limit the num­ber of of­fi­cials al­lowed to live in govern­ment res­i­dences,” he said. “Those of­fi­cials not in­cluded in the res­i­dence sys­tem could be pro­vided with smaller, sim­pler gov­ern­mentspon­sored hous­ing.

“Only elected se­nior of­fi­cials should be el­i­gi­ble for the hous­ing sys­tem, rather than those ap­pointed by their su­pe­ri­ors, be­cause elected of­fi­cials have a fixed term of ser­vice so it’s eas­ier to en­sure they move out when they leave of­fice.”

For Ma Baocheng, a re­search

An of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem has to come up with fol­low-up re­forms ... The rules must clearly state the con­se­quences if of­fi­cials refuse to re­lin­quish their State-owned homes, or turn them into pri­vate res­i­dences for sale or rent. There also needs to be an ef­fec­tive way of sub­ject­ing the use of of­fi­cial hous­ing to pub­lic scru­tiny.” LIN ZHE LAW PRO­FES­SOR AT THE PARTY SCHOOL OF THE CPC CEN­TRAL COM­MIT­TEE “The big­gest dif­fi­culty in im­ple­ment­ing such a sys­tem lies in es­tab­lish­ing bound­aries be­tween the dif­fer­ent of­fi­cial lev­els and de­part­ments and de­cid­ing who is el­i­gi­ble for in­clu­sion.” MA QINGYU PRO­FES­SOR AT THE CHI­NESE ACAD­EMY OF GOV­ER­NANCE

fel­low at the Chi­nese Acad­emy of Gov­er­nance, the is­sue is not just a mat­ter of accommodation, but also a demon­stra­tion of an in­di­vid­ual’s po­lit­i­cal power and their skill in han­dling the in­tri­cate re­la­tions be­tween top lead­ers and their sub­or­di­nates.

“A govern­ment res­i­dence com­pound is not just a place of accommodation — it’s also a sym­bol of the ex­e­cu­tion and or­ga­ni­za­tion of power,” he said.

Lin Zhe, a law pro­fes­sor at the Party School of the CPC Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, pointed to an­other prob­lem the re­form­ers may face: “An of­fi­cial res­i­dence sys­tem has to come up with fol­low-up re­forms. It will go down the drain with­out ef­fec­tive in­spec­tion and su­per­vi­sion.

“The rules must clearly state the con­se­quences if of­fi­cials refuse to re­lin­quish their State-owned homes, or turn them into pri­vate res­i­dences for sale or rent. There also needs to be an ef­fec­tive way of sub­ject­ing the use of of­fi­cial hous­ing to pub­lic scru­tiny.

“If you are not in a govern­ment po­si­tion, you are sim­ply a mem­ber of the gen­eral pub­lic or a Party mem­ber and there is no rea­son for you to con­tinue en­joy­ing the benefits at­tached to the po­si­tion,” she said. Contact the au­thor at dong­fangyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

SONG CHEN / CHINA DAILY

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