It barely registered in the International media, but plans by the Russian parliament to prevent officials from holding assets abroad have made waves in the Chinese media, and found vociferous support in the Chinese blogosphere.
Online, discussions centred around a post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, by investor and online personality Charles Xue (@薛蛮子) laying out the basics of the new legislation. The new laws, which were approved by Russia’s lower house on December 21, would ban all Russian government officials, along with their immediate family, from holding property, bank accounts, or any other kind of asset abroad. According to Xue, “A parliamentary official stated that ‘if you want to buy shares of stock, you do it here, if you want to save money you do it here. [We] won’t tolerate having one foot here and the other abroad.’” Xue’s post has since been shared over 56,000 times, garnering over 8,600 comments.
Despite the populist overtones of such a policy–one politician even suggested banning foreign education for children of officials to prevent them from ‘making nests abroad”–the plans received a near unanimous thumbs up from those who commented on Xue’s post. Many shared sentiments similar to @Mok_碧茵, who wrote, “China absolutely has to take lessons from this” and @chen的围脖2011, who wrote, ”Good old big brother, always setting an example for little brother.”
The policy also drew admiration from some users for Russia’s quasi-dictator Vladimir Putin. @一路同邢 commented, “I’ve always disliked Putin because of his KGB background and his overbearing autocratic style. But this time I agree with his support of fighting corruption with an iron fist.” User @黄健翔 speculated: “Putin was a KGB chief so he’s using his espionage skills to do this, easy!”
The reason for the chatter
As the comments suggest, “little brother” China is suffering from the same condition that proverbial older brother Russia is trying to fight with this policy. The trend for Chinese officials to move their assets, their families and eventually even themselves abroad has become a well-documented and contentious social issue, even garnering its own special term: Luo guan, or “naked official.” The term, which first appeared in 2008, describes officials who still carry on in their posts, but are ready to leave China at a moment’s notice.
In recent months, netizens have reacted with anger to revelations that female millionaire restaurant magnate Zhang Lan, who was a political advisor for Beijing’s Chaoyang District changed her nationality and then later revoked her Chinese citizenship to avoid a lawsuit.
More Recently, Zhou Kaixi, the deputy head of Guangdong’s Shunde District Public Security Bureau, has also come under continued pressure from netizens for dodgy property dealings, even after the local district Discipline Inspection Committee secretary tearily declared him to be a “good cadre.” The fact that Zhou has a wife who previously emigrated to the Philippines and a second child born in Hong Kong is taken by many online as being tantamount to evidence of guilt. A popular post making the rounds on Weibo by @自由是人类永恒的追求 states: “A naked official who sends his wife to the Phillipines, a country which has territorial disputes with China, must either be sending her there as a spy, or because has has something in China to hide.”
The overall extent to which “naked officials” have become a problem came to public attention in 2011, when the People’s Bank of China accidentally made public a confidential study, which claimed that between 1995 and 2008 800 billion RMB (about US$128 billion at the current exchange rate) had been illicitly taken out of the country by more than 18,000 officials.
The Chinese government has also announced measures to keep their flighty officials from absconding with illicit funds, announcing most recently in May 2012 that it would be setting up a “flight-prevention coordinating mechanism” for every province, while providing scant details about what this would actually entail. Previous measures had put the onus on local officials (honestly) filling out forms detailing spouses and children abroad.
Is it time for China to consider a Russian style blanket ban on officials’ moving assets abroad? While netizens may think so, it seems unlikely that there is the political will to implement such a measure, partly because the practice is so widespread among China’s top officials and other members of the country’s elite. Over 70% of Chinese with with assets over 100 million RMB have either already migrated abroad or are thinking about it, according to the 2011 Private Wealth Report.
Meanwhile, Russia’s new policy has faced internal criticism from those right at the top, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev opposing the bill prior to the vote, stating that it would only drive underground those politicians intent on amassing wealth abroad.
More than blanket bans on what is essentially a symptom of corruption and a general dissatisfaction with living standards, what China and Russia both need are measures that tackle the root causes driving officials abroad: Reducing corruption in the first instance, and making both countries more attractive destinations for those with the power to choose.