Rules upon rules: Henan leaders move to prevent local abuse of national information release legislation

By David Bandurski – China’s national ordinance on openness of information, or xinxi gongkai tiaoli (信息公开条例), takes the stage just weeks from now. The document pledges to make government information available to the public in a whole range of areas — from public health and sanitation to education, utilities and urban planning. But what assurance do we have that this document will make any difference at all? None, save words and gestures.

As we’ve said time and again at CMP, the critical issue lurking behind the question of greater openness of information in China is political reform. Without real institutional change there is no way to guarantee officials do not suppress information they regard as unfavorable to their own interests.

We saw clear demonstration of this in Shanghai back in June 2006, when reporter Ma Cheng attempted to sue the local planning bureau for its refusal to provide information that fell under the city’s local openness of information ordinance. Ma was subsequently pressured to drop the lawsuit and quietly removed from his post at Liberation Daily. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Shanghai’s own laws on transparency.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of Xinhua News Agency coverage of the drafting of the national information openness ordinance back in December 2006 via ccaj.cn.]

As implementation of the national ordinance looms as a major question mark, we have an interesting bit of news this week from Henan Province, where leaders have pledged to protect the spirit of government transparency through the most effective means short of political reform and an unfettered press — and that is, another document.

According to a report in yesterday’s Beijing Times, Henan province (whose top leader, interestingly, is former SARFT head honcho and vice propaganda chief Xu Guangchun, who once criticized Southern Weekend for being too generous with information) announced in recent days that it has issued new regulations designed to push government compliance with information openness legislation (including the national ordinance).

According to what the official Xinhua News Agency called Henan’s “new system” for dealing with information release, government offices and public enterprises that do not carry out their obligations under openness legislation will receive official rebuke from supervision departments or the next-higher administrative organ, and severe cases will be referred for prosecution.

These “obligations” include regular updating of information available for release, creating guides and indexes for available documents — and of course, protecting information that does not qualify for public release.

Government agencies across China have reportedly been urged to prepare for the national ordinance, which will take effect on May 1, by creating guides and indexes for government information and relevant procedures and making these publicly available.

Like government offices across the country, those in Henan were ordered to have information guides prepared by the end of March 2008.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of government openness of information section "under construction" on the General Administration of Press and Publications' website. Will this be up and ready by the end of this month, as mandated?]

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 6, 2008, 5pm HK]

5 Comments to “Rules upon rules: Henan leaders move to prevent local abuse of national information release legislation”

  1. MARIBEL says:

    buenas tardes, tengo la inquietud de estudia la legislacion de china, en concreto sus codigos de comercio, penal y civil en donde puedo encontrar esa informacion

  2. ThoHa says:

    oops, I must have sounded more harsh than intended, apologies! The thing to trigger this probably was the “save words and gestures” fatalism, and I suspect this was because the debate about the Chinese ordinance follows the same arduous path like so many others internationally: meandering between some NGOs’ hope for “方便democracy” (just pour water, MSG and a little FOIA… ) (I only used that to name one end of the spectrum, I do not suggest you pursue it) and a nihilistic “beware the end is nigh, and none of these laws will be implemented anyway. Let’s hope the dictator is benevolent, after all” attitude. After having worked on some of those laws and policies, I have a rather sober attitude (the one you mention, too): if you can get a law, do it, by all means. If you can either have a crap or a very crap law, go for the crap law. If nobody knows what the law is good for and how to use it, accept instant invisibility. You can always promote it later. If it does not exist, you can’t.
    That’s a bit depressing, because it means whoever is involved is walking a long and stony path paved with ingratitude and ignorance, but I keep suggesting to our Chinese colleagues that they can trigger the fun element by writing witty FOIA requests themselves and sending them to, say, the Ministries of Health in the UK and Canada. Just to let them experience what it feels like.
    That got longer thatn expected. What I actually wanted to write was: I agree with you!

  3. David says:

    Thomas:

    Thank you, first of all, for your very valid response. We certainly do need to encourage legislation of this kind, and I have gone on record again and again talking about the positives [See Far Eastern Economic Review, March 2007, for example].

    But I think you would also agree that we have to remain skeptical about implementation and political will. China has a lot of laws on the books, but we can’t forget the very elementary point that these are not necessarily the same thing as action given China’s political realities (even if HAVING these laws at all IS progress and better than no such laws at all).

    Giving governments credit where it is due does not, however, mean suspending criticism of their inadequacies. I have a hunch that as a free thinking citizen you would agree with this point. So I can only assume something in the tone of the above piece (or your assumption of that tone) really rubbed you the wrong way.

    Never have I (or anyone at CMP) advocated “instant democracy”, although I understand that’s often an instant criticism lodged at anyone who seems to be criticizing China too vehemently. NO, to answer your rhetorical question, I am not suggesting China abandon the regulation.

    And thanks, but nor do I wish to suggest that the U.S., Canada, U.K. and Germany drop their FOIA laws. Yes, of course there is a record of discrepancy anywhere between a law’s potential and its implementation. But as long as we’re stuffing words into one another’s mouths here, do you actually mean to suggest there is a valid comparison between information control in China and say, the U.S.?

    As to your concluding points, we’re in agreement.

    But what I mean by political reforms are “political system reforms”, what are called in Chinese zhengzhi tizhi gaige (政治体制改革). This is about putting systematic checks and balances in place to that legislation like this we’re talking about can’t be trampled all over by officials who are invested with power but no oversight. And before you accuse me again of advocating “instant democracy”, these are issues being debated within China.

    I’ll finish with my own rhetorical question: must any statement I make concerning inadequacies in China assume I’m also making a point about the perfection of other systems?

    Respectfully,
    David

  4. ThoHa says:

    The Chinese government is doing exactly the same as all other governments / administrations I have observed trying / needing to implement FOIA-like regulations. They are hesitant, because nobody has initiated the process by explaining the benefits of transparency to them – very much the same way researchers would be hesitant if the same transprency obligations were imposed upon them. Don;t bash those who want to introduce more transparency for not being stronger. Do you suggest to abandon the regulation again, because it will not bring about instant democracy? Then suggest the same to the US, Canada, UK and Germany, who are struggling with precisely the same discrepancy between the law’s potential and the implementation recird.
    The proper reaction is not to “save words and gestures”, but to keep informing the administration about background, reasoning and procedures, and to inform the public about which rights stem from the new regulation and which rights don’t.
    Introducing new transparency provisions, as weak as they may be at the moment, IS government reform and hence IS political reform. There is no more powerful policy instrument than transparency.

  5. doug says:

    Great new story, keeping us up to date on the most puzzling of all media reforms. Or is it government reforms?

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