The official residence system is a mechanism under which accommodation is allocated to major officials at various levels of government during their terms of office. The most important aspect of the system is that officials have only the right to use, but are not entitled to own, the properties provided, and they are required to move out after they leave office. This is not a fresh idea, and examples exist in many countries and even in ancient China. It was even common practice in ancient China.
China has recently released a blue paper on administrative reform, which puts forward the idea of re-establishing such a system in order to solve problems related to officials' accommodation and as a way to curb corruption involving housing. A nationwide survey shows that a vast majority of respondents support the concept, believing the time is ripe for its implementation. Some, however, question the system's effectiveness given the lack of transparency of officials'housing information and possible resistance from those with a vested interest.
Lan Xiang (Youth Times): Three years ago, the official residence system was incorporated into the Central Government's plans for further overall reform. Today, a blue paper on administrative reform proposes that the time is appropriate for the launch of China’s official residence system. We are hoping to see tangible efforts as soon as possible.
Nowadays, the illegal construction and occupation of residences through the abuse of power have become a new form of corruption. When they vacate posts and move on, quite a few officials fail to return residential properties allocated to them during their official terms. In some cases, they even transfer such dwellings to their offspring. This is undoubtedly an occupation of public and state assets. Houses are now very expensive, so the possession of these assets by officials has damaged the government's image, aroused public discontent and added to the government's financial burdens.
An official residence system, which prohibits the mixing of public housing and private assets, is an international practice. The experiences of many countries show that the practice can effectively deter housing-related corruption and prevent officials from embezzling government properties. Historically, such a system existed for over 2,000 years in China.
The implementation of the official residence system will undoubtedly meet resistance, particularly from officials. Those who have benefited from the old system will not happily return assets which they've already taken possession of. Officials who fail to return properties before set deadlines should receive definite punishment, and officials' housing conditions must be made transparent.
The official residence system is an effective method to restrain the abuse of power and the mixing of public and private assets. Since it's overdue, what we need now is determination and action.
Wen Laosong (Innovative Finance Observation): Simply put, an official residence is accommodation provided by government to certain high-level officials during their terms of office. Such accommodation may house both the officials and their families. The officials, however, do not enjoy associated property rights, so upon leaving office, they must return their apartments.
Currently, high-level officials enjoy government-allocated accommodation, and although they are supposed to return such housing units to the government when they retire or pass away, some refuse to do so in practice. Officials who serve in various places get to live in different apartments, and thus may gradually come to possess several houses. When an official residence system is set up, it will be impossible for them to accumulate government houses even if they serve terms in many places. This will save the government housing resources.
Pilot programs have already been carried out. According to the recently released blue paper, some local governments are exploring how to rotate accommodation among officials who serve in different places, and the program is going well. But, it has yet to be put on the agenda as far as the entire nation is concerned.
Although the official residence system is welcomed by Chinese society as a whole, it is resisted by some with a vested interest. The blue paper calls for the full implementation of property registration, and on the basis of this and other supporting measures, China's new official residence system can be fully established.
Pan Hongqi (www.ycwb.com): We often say that officials are government staff. Since they work for the state, their housing should be guaranteed by the government. Moving into official accommodation with their families will intensify officials' awareness of their status as government staff members and engender a stronger sense of responsibility.
Over the course of many years, local governments have provided apartments to officials posted to their areas. Some officials, however, fail to return the properties when they leave office, and sometimes the apartments gradually become the officials' private properties.
If the official residence system is adopted, senior central and local officials will be required to live in an official residence and to vacate the place when they leave office to make way for their successors. This open and transparent system will help curb accommodation-related corruption.
Against a larger background, however, this system will be able to play only a limited role in restraining corruption. There must be objective expectations about its effectiveness. Most civil servants are not entitled to live in special housing compounds; only a small fraction of them have access to such accommodation. The new residence system, therefore, will not be able to prevent a majority of government staff from cheating in connection with the use of housing allocated or sponsored by the government.
How is it possible to stop officials purchasing houses at prices far below market value, having houses built for themselves in contravention of laws and regulations, and even transforming government houses into their private properties? The most effective method is to ask officials to report and register their private properties, details of which can then be made open to the public. Transparency and tough supervision will most effectively deter housing corruption among government officials.
Hu Yinbin (www.gmw.cn): At a time when many officials'housing information remains unknown, and the requirement for property registration is not properly implemented, it seems a luxury to talk about the official residence system.
Corrupt officials lacking integrity complain that they cannot afford expensive houses, but actually, they've already got one or several apartments either purchased at low prices or exchanged through the abuse of power. Some of these unscrupulous officials, who apparently have no apartments in the areas where they are posted, live in luxury hotels for the whole of their term, while in some cases, offices are transformed into hotel-like apartments for their personal use. Those enjoying excessive housing benefits are bound to oppose the official residence system.
The key now is not to establish an official residence system, but to improve the current housing system with regard to government officials. They should be asked to disclose their private assets and register their home ownership as a way of curbing corruption. Of course, this is not easy, as it requires officials at various levels to wage war against their own kind and risk losing interests gained.
If officials'power is put under close public scrutiny, their housing assets are made visible and effective supervision is taken, then we can explore and try out innovations like the official residence system.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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