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The things done in darkness

China's leaders have good reason not to declare their assets but how long can they stay secret?

The things done in darkness
The Chinese Communist Party flag
Lei Wai Ho, Hong Kong

April 15, 2013

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So now we have it from their own mouths.

China’s leaders don’t want any transparency about their wealth, assets and interests, according to a recent news report.

Why, you might ask? Not because of any concern about privacy, that’s for sure. The leadership of the Party has nailed the reason – because it might lead to social unrest. And, of course, they have every reason to be concerned about that.

What an understatement! And the official blockage to the disclosure of pecuniary and other interests is not even dancing around the real issue. China’s leadership is right to be concerned about such disclosures, especially if they became regular and routine.

Why? Because a combination of need and envy in the general population will lead to social agitation. That, as history shows in an abundance of instances, flows over into political instability and a threat to the authority and control of the government.

As anyone with even a smattering of historical knowledge – of China or elsewhere – will know, once knowledge of widening gaps in wealth becomes common in any society, it will create social tensions.

And sooner or later social tensions become political movements and destabilize the ruling powers as aggrieved parties join forces to address their shared complaints.

The enrichment that occurs when the leadership of a country profits from their public positions, assumed allegedly for public service that really becomes private advantage, is not only a matter of public scandal. It is frequently the trigger to political instability, as the poor struggle harder and harder to survive while the rich – well, they just get richer.

For many months, it has been a matter of public record (first published by the New York Times and then covered in even greater detail by Bloomberg) just how many tens of billions of US dollars have been moved out of China by its wealthy elite.

A good deal of that money belongs to four families whose members provide China’s ruling political cadre.

Recently retired Premier Wen Jiabao scoffed at claims (and blocked access in China to sites carrying the details) that his family alone had moved US$3.7 billion out of the country. The new leadership is closely related – politically, by marriage and as blood relations – to former Premier Wen’s family.

The blockage of access to disturbing facts is a continuation of the control of information, people and commentators on blogs that has been commonplace in China since even before the Beijing Olympics. Back in 2007, the clamps came down and they haven’t been lifted.

And the controls by the government don’t stop at information.

Chinese society remains one of the most observed and managed anywhere. And it has been that way for centuries. China’s communists and nationalists are both Leninist parties. Their leadership was trained in Russia while Lenin was alive and introducing his staged and phased structures of control to ensure the undisputed leadership of the Communist Party.

Political committees that met weekly and were the main means of both indoctrination but also of reporting – to the security police - controlled every neighborhood, factory, commune, village and workplace in Russia. Any aberrant thinking or practice became known and suppressed very quickly.

The pattern was transferred to China and while it lapsed in Taiwan in the 1980s, it remains alive and well on the mainland.

However, the practice in China is little more than the continuation of the Imperial system of control that was operating at least from the 17th century. It ensures that doctrine is pure, policies and their processes are communicated and monitored, and that compliance is checked in a routine and effective way.

Real information, rather than doctored accounts of history or contemporary affairs, is the death of this system. Of course, because many Chinese know how to play the game in the government-controlled committees while at the same time availing themselves of information freely available on the web, they can leap the Chinese government’s internet firewall and find their way to what they want to find.

So why would the government feed such curiosity by providing any account of pecuniary and other interests? Doing so would feed social unrest and then political instability.

It’s much better to keep the populace dumb and submissive. But again, as history shows, that’s only a short term solution.

Lei Wai Ho is a commentator on Chinese affairs who writes from Hong Kong

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