What happened to China’s era of “sunshine government”?

By David Bandurski — As Chinese citizens attempt with little success to obtain access to government information whose release is mandated by the national ordinance on openness of government information, the new legislation is looking increasingly like an empty slogan. [Frontpage: Screenshot of information openness coverage on the Greatwall Broadband Network website. The "black box" of secrecy is dropped and the open box of "openness of government information" upheld.]

So what of the era of “sunshine government” that Chinese leaders promised when the ordinance was approved in 2007?

Realistically, of course, the legislation, which faces a recalcitrant political culture of secrecy, will need time to become effective.

But while China Newsweekly has argued repeatedly that realization of the ordinance’s promises will require pressure through repeated cases brought by citizens, cases have so far fizzled. China’s court system, which is often manipulated by party officials, seems utterly unable to push the government to live up to its promises.

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[ABOVE: Want government information? It's this easy in Weihai's Yuancui District.]

An editorial in the Xi’an Evening Post added its own soft pressure on the issue of information openness on Monday, arguing that government decisions against releasing information should be made according to the law.

A translation of the editorial follows:

To Release or Not is a Question for Law
By Qiao Shan (乔杉)

Recently the Beijing city government issued a document stating that if government information cannot be made public, then the reason for this should be explained to the public. Just days ago the city government’s most recent communique included five documents concerning openness of government information, stating that administrative offices must set up information platforms (信息平台) in order to swiftly gather information from the public about false information.

The timely release of government information is of great importance to ensuring the public’s right to know (公众知情权). We should see that in recent years, from the central government right down to local governments, this issue has gotten a lot of attention, and the public’s right to know has been elevated to a level not previously seen. As we acknowledge this, however, we cannot deny that some local areas still make an empty show of openness. Others avoid the release of information if at all possible and decide to release information selectively only under pressure from superior officials and public opinion. This kind of selective openness is regrettable.

It is a positive development that the Beijing city government has issued a document saying that reasons should be given in cases where there is no way to make information public. But we must also realize that under the notion of there being “no way to make information public” (无法公开) we are shielded from much information that really can be made public. This leads us to a problem, and that is the question of who has the right to say whether government information can be made public or not? The public certainly feels that the more information that can be made public the better. As for those in positions of power, they harbor the sense that less public information is better. We should say that on the law can decide the question of whether information is made public or not.

The People’s Republic of China Ordinance on Openness of Government Information (中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例) that went into effect on May 1 ths year clearly lays out the nature of information that should be released public and the procedures for doing so. Governments at various levels should act in line with the spirit of the ordinance, “releasing [information] according to the law.” It is a fact that some government information will concern issues of national and commercial secrecy, and under specified circumstances there will be information that it is not convenient to release. As to what information cannot be released, this should be a question of law – [the government] must “release [information] according to law” and “not release [information] according to law.” Article 14 of the ordinance states clearly that, “before releasing government information administrative departments should conduct a review according to the PRC National Secrecy Law (中华人民共和国保守国家秘密法) and other relevant laws, statutes and national regulations of the information to be released. When administrative departments cannot determine whether or not information can be released, they should, according to laws, statutes and relevant national regulations, make a report to their [superior] administrative departments (主管部门) or work departments at the same administrative level which deal with issues of secrecy for their determination.” Looking at these stipulations [in the ordinance], only after they have gone through the proper legal procedures concerning a particular item of information can they determine that it cannot be released.

When the “legal release [of information]” (依法公开) is so difficult, and when it is even harder to [get governments to make] “legal determinations of non-release” (依法不公开), this reveals at a higher level the government’s [weak] sense of rule of law and transparency. Because only when information release is denied in accordance with the law can we ensure that national secrecy does not become a pretext for not making information public.

(The writer is a journalist)

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 6, 2008, 10:46am HK]

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