China's Transparency Reform: Is It for Real?

The Chinese government is giving mixed signals about its commitment to a new freedom of information law.

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Policemen hold their fists in front of a flag of Communist Party of China as they attend an oath-taking rally to ensure the safety of the upcoming 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, at a military base in Hangzhou. (Reuters)

In late October, Chinese citizens in Ningbo protested a controversial plan to expand a petrochemical plant. The Ningbo protest was the latest in a spate of similar public incidents, where Chinese citizens have taken to the streets in large numbers -- sometimes resorting to violence -- to oppose controversial industrial projects that they believe would affect their health and the environment.

The anxieties driving these protesters, mostly members of China's urban middle class, stem in large part from the fact that their government has left them in the dark about its plans. State administrative agency determinations on environmental and health standards are typically not public. In general, local government decisions to award, initiate or regulate industry take place in a black box.

Few protesters may be aware that there is a system in place, at least on paper, to allow citizens access to the inner workings of their government. The Regulation on Open Government Information (OGI) was put in place in 2008 to shine sunlight on the workings of government and to mitigate popular grievances about lack of accountability. OGI is supposed to provide a comprehensive solution, but in practice low levels of compliance have negated its effectiveness.

If properly implemented, together with its supporting regulations, OGI should afford Chinese citizens the right to request specific government disclosure for the first time. Today, citizens can make OGI requests via forms on certain government agency websites and through online platforms. And, indeed, some have utilized this right; according to official statistics in 2011, 1.3 million OGI requests were made at the provincial level, and the requests were granted to 85% of the applications.

Yet the activists, lawyers and university professors that initiate many of these OGI's requests tell a different story about its success. Their anecdotes suggest that levels of compliance vary drastically among localities.

Agencies routinely fail to respond to OGI requests, and when they do respond, they sometimes cite rationales that appear arbitrary and even deceitful. For example, a 2010 regulation requires provincial-level environmental protection bureaus to disclose enterprises that are major emitters of dioxins.  Only four of 31 bureaus have made the disclosure. Even after receiving an OGI request, none of the remaining 27 bureaus provided the information.

Non-compliant bureaus gave a myriad of justifications for their nondisclosure. OGI applicants have said some bureaus simply have hung up the phone. Others said that bureaus maintain their information constituted a state secret or could harm social stability. According to one OGI applicant who asked not to be named, one provincial bureau appeared to purposefully provide irrelevant documents. The reason? A State Council guideline says that bureaus do not have to respond if the same citizen submits the same request more than once. When the applicant found the documents to be irrelevant and again requested the information, the bureau rejected the application, citing the guideline.

The tools for improving OGI compliance are within reach. Other countries as diverse as the United Kingdom, Brazil and Bosnia have put in place nationally-integrated online platforms that lower the barriers for citizens to request information. The websites provide a one-stop-shop to fill out, send, save and track all requests. When a government agency responds, the reply is available for all to see. Not only would such a tool improve the quality of citizen requests and prevent duplicative submissions, it would allow government agencies to reference the responses of peer agencies. The data available from such a website would drastically improve performance monitoring. Many Chinese local governments have already embraced e-government platforms that allow citizens to make direct requests on issues of public concern and publish officials' responses.

In order for OGI to work properly, citizens must also have recourse to courts in order to compel government agencies to disclose information.  And importantly, these courts must be insulated from politics. In one encouraging example, a Beijing court recently supported a citizens' request for information even against a politically sensitive backdrop. In late 2008, the Ministry of Health and the dairy industry came under intense scrutiny after a tainted baby formula scandal killed six and caused kidney damage in hundreds of thousands of infants. Following a recent revision to the national food safety standard for baby formula and milk products, a concerned citizen filed an OGI request for the minutes of the meeting at which revisions were discussed. The Ministry of Health initially denied the request on grounds that the meeting summary fell within an exception for information relating to internal management. But just last month, the Beijing court ordered the ministry to respond to the consumer's request.  Reports have not yet indicated the ministry's reply.

The rash of high-profile mass incidents over the past year has, of course, not escaped the attention of China's rulers. However, their hands are effectively tied until after the leadership transition. The new leadership should waste no time in finishing the task of implementing the OGI regulations. Meaningful reform in this area will go a long way to quelling public discontent, protests and violence and will provide the disinfectant to make government more accountable and responsive.

This post was produced in collaboration with Tea Leaf Nation.