By Terril Yue Jones
BEIJING (Reuters) - About 65 Chinese academics, lawyers and human rights activists have signed an open letter demanding that top members of the ruling Communist Party reveal their financial assets, saying it is the most fundamental way to solve corruption.
The letter will be presented to parliament when it meets for its annual session in March, according to the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper.
Petitions to China's parliament are usually ignored. But the public denunciation of corruption underscores the top challenge facing new party chief Xi Jinping, who has himself warned that if corruption were allowed to run wild, the party risked major unrest and the collapse of its rule.
The letter calls on the 205 newly named members of the party's Central Committee to divulge their personal wealth. The call follows a stream of scandals involving party members.
"This is the first step in fighting corruption", Hu Jia, a prominent rights activist who signed the letter, told Reuters by telephone.
"These 205 are the highest-level officials in China," said Hu, whose movements are restricted because of his rights activities and who was being confronted aggressively by police as he spoke to Reuters after venturing out of his home.
"They are the ones with the greatest risk of being involved in corruption. So we are calling on them to take the lead," Hu said.
A new Central Committee was named at the party's once-a-decade leadership handover last month. Xi took over as party chief and will become president at the National People's Congress, or parliament, in March.
The letter has drawn more than 1,000 signatures of support from members of the public, and more will be collected up until it is sent to parliament, the Global Times reported.
The year's biggest corruption scandal, involving former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, overshadowed the run-up to the leadership transition.
Bo was expelled from the party and faces possible charges of corruption and abuse of power, while his wife was jailed for involvement in the murder of a British businessman.
The incident was followed by several reports by the foreign media on the wealth of some top leaders, including Xi and Premier Wen Jiabao, that have embarrassed and angered the party.
Other signatories of the letter saw the leadership transition as an opportunity to make a push against graft.
"It's a good chance to create a new atmosphere," said Hu Xingdou, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
"China is vigorously fighting corruption, and to fight corruption the most important thing is to establish a modern system, a system that makes officials' assets public."
Liu Xiaoyuan, a human rights lawyer and adviser to artist Ai Weiwei, China's best-known dissident, said the new leaders must set an example.
"Appeals for disclosing the assets of officials have already been going on for years and many people have high expectations of the new leadership," Liu said.
"This must start with the top echelon."
Liu acknowledged, however, that the letter might just be ignored.
"The National People's Congress has been discussing legislation on disclosing assets for more than 20 years but still, there is no outcome," he said.
Wang Quanjie, a professor at Yantai University, was more optimistic. As a former delegate to parliament, Wang had proposed numerous times that the parliament make officials reveal their assets, but to no avail.
But he said last month's congress had given him hope.
"I was genuinely inspired by the determination of the new leadership to combat graft," Wang said.
"I'm optimistic that the current situation shows new actions are imperative," he said. "Corruption has been very serious and if these problems remain unsolved, the Communist Party's leadership position will be jeopardized."
(Additional reporting by Beijing bureau; Editing by Sui-Lee Wee and Robert Birsel)