The Difficulty of Figuring Out Who Owns What in China

How a seemingly obscure clerical matter could sink the country's real estate market.

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A couple walk past a beggar at a pedestrian bridge near apartment blocks in Beijing on December 2, 2012. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Over the last few days, new regulations on China's real estate information system have provoked another wave of anti-corruption sentiment. According to the Southern Metropolis Daily (@南方都市报), the government of Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province instituted a regulation on February 16 restricting access to the government-maintained real estate information system. The regulation prohibits searches for information about real estate ownership, unless the search is requested by the property owners themselves or law-enforcement agencies. Furthermore, searching may only be done using real estate registration numbers or addresses. In short, it has become tremendously difficult to discover how many apartments a person owns by using the official system. A similar regulation was also instituted recently in Yancheng City in Jiangsu Province.

Although the news instantly went viral in public Internet forums, follow-up reports from the Oriental Morning Post (@东方早报) show that in most cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, it has long been impossible to conduct name searches in real estate information systems. The newly released regulations in these two cities only institutionalized a ban that was already an unwritten rule in some places.

Nevertheless, despite its practical insignificance, the news is symbolically important, and has led to a heated debate. At its core, the debate was not about real estate alone, but the fight against corruption, one of the most complicated factors in China's state-society relationship.

As suggested in the statement released by the Yancheng City government, the new regulation was meant to address citizens' desire to protect their privacy. The regulation is indeed in line with standard practices in Western countries, where individuals are barred from searching for information about others' assets through official systems.  According to the government, the new measure is a legitimate way to enhance protection of personal privacy.

In contrast, Web users saw the policy in a different light. They believed that instead of protecting ordinary citizens, the measure primarily benefited corrupt officials. @险峰飞渡, a user of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, explained how this was the case: "Obviously, this ban has been proposed in the name of protecting citizens' privacy in order to buy more time for officials to conceal their illegitimate assets. You can tell they are really afraid. Also, the ban shows that bureaucrats have already formed a class of solidarity, taking advantage of a variety of policy tools to defend their collective interests. This is really serious. If all of your income is legal, why are you afraid of a search by name?"

In an opinion poll conducted by Sina, 87.7% of participants opposed the ban. The sharp contrast between the government's justification of the ban and Web users' objection to it mirrored the public's long-standing mistrust of the state, but was also exacerbated by the circumstances under which the regulation was put forward.

The last several months have seen many grassroots anti-corruption campaigns online. Officials and their relatives whose real estate assets apparently exceeded what their legal income could conceivably acquire were variously called "house uncle," "house sister," "house wife" and "house grandpa" by Web users as they were identified and condemned. In most cases, the government caved to public pressure and investigated these individuals. Multiple officials have been removed and legal processes against them have begun. In the absence of effective top-down supervision and limited opportunities for political participation, many regard online sleuthing as a last resort for citizens who want to oversee their civil servants.

Even though it remains unclear how many of these cases began with use of the official information system, many Web users believe that the new prohibitions are intended to counter the burgeoning sleuthing movement. Netizens perceive policymakers' denial of this connection as nothing more than a lie.

Online suspicion of the policy is rooted in recent developments. After the 18th National Party Congress last November, the new Party leaders took a firm stance against corruption on various occasions. Rumors later abounded that the real estate information system, currently run by local governments independently, would soon be integrated into a nationwide network, making officials subject to more centralized top-down scrutiny.

As a result, fear rapidly spread among officials. As reported by Economic Observer (@经济观察报), bureaucrats in major cities have been furiously selling off luxurious real estate properties since last December. By January 19, when Economic Observer published the news, the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Central Committee of the CPC had talked to more than 120 officers, asking their relatives to stop selling real estate and closing certain relatives' banking accounts. Given this information, the public cannot but assume that officials devised the policy solely to secure their assets and careers, using the protection of personal privacy as an excuse.

In an editorial published on February 19, Global Times (@环球时报) argued that the ongoing debate reflects a contradiction between two incompatible goals. According to the editorial, because of their strong contempt for corruption, a great many people irrationally support fighting against corruption in whatever ways might work--even if it means sacrificing privacy, which is a basic human right.

But Global Times seriously misinterpreted Web users' main argument. They are not prioritizing the cause of anti-corruption over the protection of privacy . Instead, they do not believe the ban is meant to protect personal privacy at all. For them, in an environment of selective law enforcement, administrators and law enforcement officers would only enforce rules and regulations that benefit themselves. Deeply mistrusting the government, Chinese citizens think that discourse on privacy protection only serves to mask bureaucrats' self-interest.

The fact that Western Countries have a comprehensive information disclosure system for officials' assets and effective protection of citizens' personal privacy proves that fighting against corruption and privacy protection are in fact compatible. The two goals could be achieved at the same time, but only if the state were dedicated to both. The Beijing Youth Daily (@北京青年报) points out that the existence of an information disclosure system for officials' assets is a precondition for public support of privacy protection regulations.

What annoys Web users is the very different level of dedication the state shows to the two causes. The government tends to ignore any voice demanding information about officials' assets, yet is quite devoted to the protection of privacy. As @ -李凤仪 wrote, "The government processes issues at two speeds. On things like disclosing officials' assets, they move like turtles, procrastinating as much as possible and pretending they are deaf. But on things like banning search by name and protecting corruption, they act as quickly as possible."

The snafu over real-estate searches has exposed the continuing gap between Chinese society and the state. In some ways, China is falling into the "Tacitus Trap": when a government loses credibility, it will be perceived as dissimulating whether or not it is telling the truth. Nefarious motives will be read into its every move. These conditions in turn act as a deterrent for any progressive interaction between state and society, and create a dilemma that may cast a shadow over China's public sphere for some time to come.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.