Open information is a drill for democracy

Over a range of stories and concerns in recent months, from the bungled handling of the July 23 train collision in Wenzhou to the nagging topic of government departments opening up their records of the “three public expenses” — use of public vehicles, “public” trips overseas and “public” expenses for entertaining guests — the issue of open government information has moved front and center.

On August 3, top leaders released an official notice calling for more open release of information about the unfolding of sudden-breaking incidents in China and their handling by authorities.

An editorial in today’s People’s Daily again deals with the issue of open government information (OGI), arguing that while OGI faces many challenges in China, it is the way forward for both the public and the Party.

A translation of the editorial follows:

Open Government Information is a Basic Drill for Democracy
People’s Daily
September 2, 2011

The public cry for open government information has been loud, and expectations are high. In the midst of these expectations, it’s difficult for the government to avoid being sized up by ever more discriminating eyes. For this reason, as central departments release [information about] the “three public expenses” (三公经费), concrete issues like numbers not squaring up at some departments will be rapidly ferreted out by internet users.

Along with the continued development of socialist democratic politics (社会主义民主政治), as the appetite for public participation rises and the capacity for participation daily matures, a powerful force has already gathered. The “chief who enjoyed exorbitant cigarettes” [Zhou Jiugeng, former director of a property management bureau in the city of Nanjing] fell from office under [a wave of] online scrutiny, and reforms to personal income tax attracted 230,000 opinions [online]. This is not just a reality of the times that open government information must face — it also adds pressure to other areas of reform.

If we count from the implementation of the Ordinance on Open Government Information [in May 2008], open government information has only gone for three years. In the short space of these three years, whether in terms of institutional support and the building of platforms, or in terms of personnel or evaluation and assessment [of implementation], all areas are in the process of improving. The constant “thawing” of [outmoded] concepts and “ice breaking” in terms of practice have broken through the traditional idea that “the people must be used, but must not be aware” (民可使由之,不可使知之), and this is a mark of major progress.

We should also note that against the expectations of the people, [our gains on] open government information still fall far short. In Western countries, open government information already has a history of a half-century, but we were only just out of the starting gate as we came upon the turbulence of the information age. In China, open government information is not just a self limitation of powers carried out by the government, but it is in a foot race with the expectations of the public. It’s as though we’ve just come into the world with wails and are expected to get up and run. Certainly, this is both urgent and difficult.

Recognizing the difficulty of this endeavor, some local governments have wavered back and forth, full of reservations. In an era of dramatic social transition, when we are at a turning point in which [social] stability is under pressure and demands are high, when we face a fervor for participation among the masses the likes of which we have never before seen, and as we face cautionary warnings in reform in certain quarters that “[white-fisted] control spells death, and letting go brings chaos,” it’s clear what challenges face the robust promotion of open government information. But for our leaders this is an issue of urgency, not a question of choice. The demands of the central party, the trends of the times, the demands of modern politics, the hopes of the people, all together constitute a wave [pushing us in the direction] of reform of government affairs. As to the logic behind this, it is exactly as central party leaders have said, that there is risk in reform, but without reform the party will itself face hazards.

At this time, what is needed urgently above all else is a new governance framework (新型治理框架) that can promote orderly public participation and drive a virtuous circle of society. How to handle order and chaos, how to strike a balance between trust and skepticism, these are test questions such a framework must answer as we open up budgets and expenditures for official business, and even the personal assets of state officials, allowing the public to participate in policy making, administration and oversight. Employed properly, the force of public participation can be a force of progress. Used incorrectly, it can be a force of destruction. Leaders must have sufficient wisdom and capacity to harness the “innumerable flowing streams” of public participation through institutionalized channels. The level and quality of open government information will determine whether or not we will make the gains of progress that participation must bring, and whether we avoid the chaos that can come with participation.

In our present experience of open government affairs, subjectivity and ad hoc decision-making are still very much in evidence. A number of local [governments] are still accustomed to using specious justifications to avoid public demands for information. As to some information made openly available, the public isn’t interested, or can’t understand it [NOTE: meaning that a lot of information released by the government is overly technical or does not address the issues they want to know about]. In a definite sense, this has resulted in an antagonism between “power” (权力) and “rights” (权利), which can quite easily do damage to the zest for participation [or allowing participation]. Only by expanding the “institutional supply” (制度供给) of open [information], actively improving execution, feedback and monitoring of information openness and the standards such as responsibility [by government officials] that govern the process, further clarifying the standards, methods and responsibilities in terms of information openness, steadily unblocking the channels for remedy of the public’s right to know, can we ensure that the zeal for openness moves forward through completely “orderly” and “stable” channels.

Whether for the government or for citizens, open government information is a kind of basic drill for democracy (民主训练). Helping each other forward, active participation by the public and the government’s institutional supply (政府的制度供给) will steadily raise [our people's] democratic disposition (民主素质), and social harmony and progress will exist not only as an ideal in our hearts.

[Frontpage photo by Marcin Wichary available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

2 Comments to “Open information is a drill for democracy”

  1. XinWenChong says:

    interesting comment from HuaQiao !!!
    It adds an important (and very currently pertinent) perspective to David’s article.

    ….. takes advantage of this cultural phenomenon and mixes it with a controlled press …

    this, “cultural phenomenon” , me thinks is actually very interesting from a media analysis perspective.
    It’s cultural, but it has also to do with the breathtaking pace of new technology and tools being used in all media channels. By the public that is.

    It is indeed IMHO something very new, and interesting to keep up with the responses to that. “We’re cool guys ! We twitter and have webpages called “open-X” “open-Y”. (or e-X, e-Y , e-beijnggoverment … ).

    I suppose it also has to do with the restructuring budget and personal policies of the Propaganda Department ? More younger (less than 50 yrs old) people entering ? Increasing hordes of unemployed college graduates (media/english majors even from “elite” universities) available ?

    All these editorials exorting this and criticizing that. Pretending there’s a high level will to push the bar. To me it feels that there’s really a strategic thinking behind it and a strong push from the Propaganda department to adopt this “let’s pretend we are criticizing someone (ourselves” to make it look like it a really “top of the agenda issue”Wen JiaBao is also a classic master at it, but for the last generation. .

    It’s the natural evolution and response to the new phenomenon of social media, and the impossibility of controlling every single twit, BBS comment, or uploaded photo.
    Its not a China only thing.
    It’s the eptitome of emptiness and hipocrysy in the media in every single development country with a goverment/oligarchy (controlled) media. Very latin-american, and even some arab world countries nowadays have it .. China, like any other authoritarian country, has now entered this “stage”.

    …..The editorial is poetically written but the words ring hollow…..

    Yeahhh … this “poetically written” is also interesting. From a linguistic perspective I mean. It seems to me there is a recent tendency here. It’s not enough anymore to make it (textually) “poetically difficult” , so that average Joe Wang, doesnt understand a thing out of it, but still thinks they must be right (with all those chengyus and shumian on XinwenLianbo for example). After all they are “educated”.

    But this new “poetically written” is to me a “techno poetic”. You have to compress and stuff an astonishing large (and very new in standard mandarin) new vocabulary, multiword expressions, concepts, hot topics, buzz words, floating around in the “commentosphere”. This is for average “urban educated” Joe-Wang. There still has to be something there that is eyecatching, looks sophisticated (kind of “we’re right here, keeping and eye and commenting on the new socio-fashionable stuff”).
    Again, this is also not exclusive to China, but it is funny to see this happening in standard mandarin, and the effect it has on the discourse (voidness, shallowness and confusion in the head) of the younger “media savy” ones. (I spend my day with journalism/media students at the university, that’s where i get this impression from)

    … OK … will shut up now. Otherwise the 5mao will devour the Oxford English Dictionary, before writing a 10 pages reply to my post.

  2. Hua Qiao says:

    I can’t help but be skeptical in a society where cover up is endemic. The concept of face is so powerful in China and this leads to a distortion of the facts of the situation. Happy talk is never challenged. The Party takes advantage of this cultural phenomenon and mixes it with a controlled press and intimidation of the the brave few who still challenge the system to stomp out any dissent in the name of social harmony.

    The editorial is poetically written but the words ring hollow given the the Party’s track record. I wouldn’t bet one hundred flowers on it happening.

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