In Vietnam, where the public remains clueless about officials’ wealth, burglars could be helpful

By Dien Luong   September 27, 2017 | 07:19 pm GMT+7

An otherwise unremarkable theft has turned out to be a stark reminder of how Vietnam’s financial disclosure laws remain toothless.

A man loses around VND400 million ($17,600) from a hotel room and reports the alleged burglary to authorities. By journalistic standards, such an incident is unlikely to warrant a news story even for a local newspaper.

But what should have been an otherwise unremarkable occurrence set the Vietnamese press and social media abuzz on Wednesday. For obvious reasons: the victim was a senior government official who by regulations makes less than $5,000 a year; Vietnam’s average annual income is roughly half that amount.

The incident has yet again laid bare the public skepticism over how much money public officials are accumulating in a country where the masses remain in the dark about their wealth. It also happened at a crucial moment when officials and observers have acknowledged that Vietnam’s financial disclosure laws have all but failed.

Nguyen Xuan Quang, a senior official in charge of overseeing environmental protection at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, confirmed on Wednesday that he had lost nearly VND400 million ($17,600) during a business trip to the southern province of Long An, around 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the southeast of Saigon, where he was carrying out inspections of local companies.

He reported the loss of his bag, which reportedly contained the cash and a laptop, on Tuesday morning to staff at a local hotel where he and several other officials were staying.

“I reaffirm that the lost cash was my own money,” Quang told local media on Wednesday. “Nothing shady or illegal here,” he said. Quang also expressed resentment that the police had made public the burglary report against his will.

But to Vietnamese readers and netizens, Quang’s assurance appears to be a tough sell. Many of them are almost unanimously raising the same question: Can Quang be trusted? And, more saliently, why did he bring such a large amount of cash on a business trip?

in-vietnam-where-the-public-is-kept-in-the-dark-about-officials-wealth-burglars-can-be-useful-sometimes-ed

The hotel where Nguyen Xuan Quang, a senior official in charge of overseeing environmental protection, reported a loss of nearly VND400 million ($17,600) during a business trip to the southern province of Long An. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

Whether Quang will be given the benefit of the doubt remains to be seen. But the latest incident in Long An just added to the long list of high-profile cases in which thieves targeted a governmental official only to expose the irony.

In 2014, a senior official of the Ho Chi Minh City municipal administration reported a theft of around $77,000 in cash, saying it had disappeared from the desk drawer of his office. A year earlier, four thieves were caught breaking into the house of a finance official in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum to steal nearly $143,000 worth of property. Also in 2013, a man received seven years in jail for stealing more than $472,000 from several government officials in the central city of Da Nang and neighboring Quang Nam Province.

To many, the latest burglary is a reminder of how Vietnam’s financial disclosure laws, billed as one of its most powerful tools for tackling corruption, remain toothless.

The country has been amending its Anti-Corruption Law after a decade of implementation. In a bid to monitor clandestine asset movement, the bill seeks to compel state officials to make all transactions worth over VND20 million (US$896) electronic. But the passage of the amended law has been put on the back burner pending further reviews.

Vietnam made it mandatory for public officials to submit financial disclosure forms in 2007. In 2013, an amended government decree widened the categories of officials falling under the purview, requiring around one million of them to declare incomes and assets worth more than the equivalent of $2,400, including cash, gifts, savings, stocks and vehicles – held both inside and outside the country.

But the annual outcomes of these financial disclosures have always run contrary to Vietnam’s poor international corruption rankings. Of the one million public officials required to disclose their assets in 2016, only three were found to have made false declarations. That number was five a year earlier.

“So far, the requirement for officials to declare their own assets has proven ineffective,” said Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnam analyst at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, which studies social, political and economic trends in the region.

One of the most glaring pitfalls in the process is that financial disclosures are not made available for public review, analysts say. Instead, each official’s finances are submitted for “the approval of the heads of their respective agencies” during an annual review process. The verification process is carried out only when there is a promotion, an appointment or a complaint that involves a public official.

That poses another problem. Every year these agencies must process roughly a million financial disclosure reports. Given the number of people filing disclosures and the nature of the exercise, verifying the declarations is a tall order, according to analysts.

The amended bill seeks to plug several of these loopholes. Public officials would not be required to disclose their assets on an annual basis, but only when they are nominated for election, appointment, re-appointment or promotion at public agencies, or when “there is an increase of VND200 million ($8,900) or more” in their assets or incomes.

“The big question is how the [Communist] Party is going to enforce it,” Hiep said. “The problem for Vietnam's fight against corruption is not the lack of regulations, it's the lack of enforcement mechanisms.”

But before any major shakeup materializes, burglars and the social media may have a better chance than inspectors of finding out how much money officials are accumulating. 

Facebook has played an increasingly important role in exposing the shady assets of public officials in Vietnam, which is among the social media giant’s top 10 countries by users. Many Facebook users have raised questions about the huge properties owned by public officials, prompting authorities to swing into action.

In a recent interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper to assess the financial disclosure laws, Truong Thanh Duc, a lawyer at the Hanoi Bar Association, summed it up: “It’s a laughing stock. There is no point in making such declarations if they are off-limits to the public.”