By David Bandurski — Since national legislation on government information release took effect in China on May 1 this year, Chinese media have taken to the topic of information openness in a big way. And while the lasting effects of the National Ordinance on Openness of Government Information (政府信息公开条例) remain to be seen, there can little doubt that media have used the very fact of the law’s existence to advance discussion of its spirit — the value of timely information sharing.
Here is what the term “information openness”, or xinxi gongkai (信息公开), has looked like in China’s media over the past year. There is clear upward trend in coverage, cresting in May as the legislation took effect and the Sichuan earthquake further underscored the importance of information access.
[ABOVE: Data plots number of article occurrences for the term "information openness" (信息公开) in more than 300 mainland newspapers from June 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008, based on the WiseNews database.]
On May 21 China Newsweekly reported a “tide” of formal information release requests (信息公开申请) filed by Chinese citizens under the new national legislation.
On May 4, Beijing resident Chen Yuhua (陈育华) made a request to the Beijing Public Security Bureau demanding to know how management fees levied by the city since 2003 on dog owners had been used. Beijing resident Zhan Jiang (湛江) applied to the Environmental Protection Bureau of Beijing’s Haiding District to find out why rights defense cases brought by homeowners against property developers had not been handled.
Shanghai lawyer Yan Yiming (严义明) filed requests with both the Anhui Provincial Health Department and the Fuyang (阜阳) city government wanting them to make public the reasons why they had not issued information on the outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease in a timely manner.
According to Chinese media reports, local hospital officials in Fuyang made a prompt report to health officials when the first child died of hand, foot and mouth disease in the city on March 28, 2008. But it was four weeks before health officials finally released information on the disease.
No sooner had the legislation taken effect than media began questioning its inadequacies too, particularly how to ensure compliance by local governments, and how to standardize the information release process.
On May 1, Hang Fuzheng (韩甫政), a lawyer from Cangzhou (沧州) in Hebei province, issued a proposal to the State Council asking that it standardize the “release” process for State Council departments by establishing more rigorous national standards for information release covering a range of areas, including education, sanitation, housing and city planning.
China Newsweekly quoted Peking University law professor Jiang Ming’an (姜明安), a participant in the drafting process, as saying implementation was uneven across the country, and that the legislation was going up against entrenched party habits. “Many government officials do not wish to make information public because they’re used to thinking that ‘not making [information] public is the rule, and making it public is the exception,’” he said.
Information access continues to be an issue accompanying breaking news stories, most recently the Weng’an riots in Guizhou, and the Shaanxi Provincial Government’s coming clean over the South China Tiger scandal.
This morning, Chongqing Morning Post ran a piece from the Procuratorial Daily (检察日报) called “Guizhou’s Weng’an Incident Brings Out the Importance of Information Openness.” The article said:
The mass incident involving the mobbing of the Weng’an County Government by certain people has lately died down. But the so-called ‘Weng’an Incident’ thoroughly demonstrates that mass incidents and gossip are twin brothers, and that if we wish to prevent the occurrence of mass incidents we must be timely and quick in clearing away rumors.
Today’s main editorial in Southern Metropolis Daily turns to the question of information openness in light of the South China Tiger scandal, arguing that the national ordinance should be seen not only as a force pitting the people against the government but as an act of self-strengthening on the part of the government:
In this way, openness of government information is not just as we tend to think of it, as beneficial only to the monitoring of the government by ordinary people, and not in the particular interest of the government itself. As we can see from the South China Tiger controversy, releasing government information in a timely and efficient manner can also work against the various government offices or officials looking to profit personally and hold ransom the credibility of the system.
Therefore, with the enactment of the National Ordinance on Openness of Government Information as an impetus, and with the South China Tiger controversy as a real example, we can no longer see the movement for seeking information and the truth purely as the monitoring of the government by the people, as a kind of coercion. It is, at the same time, an internal act of self-purification by the government, one method of effective supervision. By means of effective release of information, strong and healthy elements within the government can grow and develop, while those irregular and unhealthy elements can be checked and eliminated.
As readers can see from the graph above, there were more than 800 articles addressing “information openness” appearing in China’s press in June alone. We don’t have time, unfortunately, to go over these in detail. But this is certainly a trend worth watching.
Will China’s media continue to push the issue of information openness along with news coverage of important stories?
It is also worth noting that a number of local governments are now using the newspapers and Internet to publish the “information release catalogs” (信息公开目录) they are required to make available under the ordinance. Here, for example, is a list of contacts and information published recently in Kunming Daily:
QQ.com special page on information openness and the Weng’an mass incident, July 3, 2008
“Government Openness of Information: In Treating Water Upstream, Sunshine is the Greatest Preservative,” China Newsweekly, May 4, 2008.
“A Tide of Information Release Requests Concern Old Issues,” China Newsweekly via NPC website, May 21, 2008.
[Posted by David Bandurski, July 3, 2008, 2:31pm]