China Newsweekly: government “cold” on “information openness”

By David Bandurski — Since China’s National Ordinance on Openness of Government Information, or xinxi gongkai tiaoli (政府信息公开条例), took effect back on May 1 this year, domestic media say the government has faced a “wave” of formal information requests from aggrieved and inquisitive citizens. And as CMP noted earlier this month, Chinese media have been using the ordinance to push the topic of information openness as well as related issues like freedom of expression.

However, a report from last week’s China Newsweekly magazine, which has offered continued coverage of the ordinance since May, suggests party leaders are (as is to be expected) less than enthusiastic about the prospect of greater public scrutiny.

copy-of-info-openness-book.JPG

[ABOVE: Image of cover of publicly available version of China's national openness of information ordinance.]

The article, “Information Openness Face-off: Citizens Are ‘Hot’ and the Government is ‘Cold,‘” begins by reiterating a point China Newsweekly has made repeatedly, that “the strongest force in pushing openness of information comes from various specific demands.”

But up to now, those demands have been getting the cold shoulder, and the net result is not encouraging.

[NOTE, August 1, 2008: When we posted this piece yesterday, we neglected to mention or translate one of the most revealing facts in the China Newsweekly report. Concerning Huang Tianyou's request for release of information, discussed in the portion below, the article says: "On June 23, a judge from the intermediate court said to him, 'This case of yours has a major impact, not just domestically but internationally, so the opinion of the provincial court and the supreme court must be sought before a decision is made." This is a wonderful example of how court officials in China often render political rather than legal decisions.

A partial translation of the magazine's report follows:

Up to now, Huang Youjian (黄由俭) has still not received notice of whether his case has been accepted by the superior court in Hunan province. As of July 14 it had already been 20 days since he first brought the case to court.

Upset at problems stemming from enterprise restructuring efforts, a number of retired workers from the water works in Hunan's Rucheng County (汝城县) [including Huang] had continually attempted to voice their grievances through the petitions system. When they heard later that the Rucheng county government had carried out an investigation of problems in enterprise restructuring and had “produced an objective investigative report,” they demanded that the government make the report public.

Because they opted to bring their case at the first opportunity after the National Ordinance on Openness of Government Information took effect [on May 1], their case was widely viewed as a test case.

It was called China’s “first openness of information suit.” But so far no court has even agreed to hear the case, nor have they received any formal notification of denial.

The twists and turns of this case demonstrate the difficulties facing openness of information.

The materials under question in the case are readily available, so why won’t the courts accept it?

It is 11 o’clock in the evening before 67 year-old Huang Youjian returns home. The situation of the case has become “more and more critical,” and he must work night after night with more than 20 of his fellow retirees to work out a plan of action. It is July 13.

The consensus is that they should get in touch with the media and fish about for support.

They have decided to turn from the path of legal remediation and seek media support because Huang and his colleagues “already see no hope of resolving the problem” through the county, city or provincial courts.

When the banner advertising the national ordinance was hung over the entrance to the county government on May 1, Huang felt excited, but now, he says, he has “once again returned to that place of helplessness” . . .

In a series of requests made by Zhu Fuxiang (朱福祥), a resident of Si Ji Qing Township (四季青镇) in Beijing’s Haiding District, concerning land and environmental planning, you can see even more clearly the state of implementation of the “ordinance.”

On May 8, Zhu Fuxiang filed a request with the Beijing Municipal Planning Commission to obtain Si Ji Qing Township’s report on environmental planning for a building project by [developer] Chang Qing Tong Da (常青通达建设项目). The planning commission instead gave him a document explaining planning conditions for the project, and when he told government employees that this was not what he had requested, he was told: “Our bosses said to give you this response.”

When he applied to the Land Bureau for release of information about land use for the Mentou New Village project (门头新村建设项目) things played out in the same way. “What we asked them for was information about how much peasant land was used, and how much was used for development of marketable housing. What they gave us was an approval document for requisition of the land,” Zhu Fuxiang said.

When he applied with the township government for information about the mode of use of two buildings in Si Ji Xing Township’s jurisdiction, they responded: “The information you requested does not exist.”

On June 23, Zhu Fuxiang went again to the planning commission, this time to request information concerning the planning permit (规划许可证) for one of Chang Qing Tong Da’s commercial projects. A government employee told him that if he wanted to obtain the information, he first needed to track down the number of the document he required, otherwise they could not provide it. “We’ve never seen this document, so how could we possibly know what its number is?” Zhu Fuxiang said discouragedly . . .

In the space of two months, Zhu Fuxiang faced perhaps every excuse that could be given for not providing information: the answer to the wrong question, the information does not exist, and it is inconvenient to provide the information you ask . . .

[Posted by David Bandurski, July 31, 2008, 11:38am HK]

One Comment to “China Newsweekly: government “cold” on “information openness””

  1. [...] the results are not very encouraging, according to a magazine article partly translated here. [China Media [...]

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