With Tunisia and Egypt in revolution, the Western media seem to be hypnotized with this notion that the only way Chinese society can improve is the citizens themselves fermenting a ‘jasmine revolution’ and overthrow the government. Note that they don’t actually say it, but their narratives are frequently with this a presumption. (See my prior post.) We retard our views if we limit ourselves to thinking that for weaker nations, revolution is the panacea to everything. For China, the key is always reforms from within, and I want to share about China’s recent freedom of information act. These reforms are in fact being done in earnest and some times with foreigner input.
In 2007, China’s State Council issued the “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information” (中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例) which went into law in May 2008. They required government departments to disclose a very wide range of information. The purpose is to make the government more transparent and to make Chinese society one of rule of law. The Yale Law School’s China Law Center has a good collection of resources inside and outside China on how those regulations are being put into practice (in English). Peking University’s Center for Public Participation Studies and Supports (北京大学公众参与研究与支持中心) can be reached here in Chinese with a broader view of what is happening in China. The Chinese in fact works with Western NGO’s too, including the Ford Foundation.
Where is China in these efforts? Recently, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) issued their “blue book” or annual report on “China’s rule of law,” and the results are “51 out of 59 government administrations under the State Council and 70 percent of 43 selected city governments failed to pass an administrative transparency evaluation.” Apparently, China still has a long ways to go.
Below is a short article from China Daily on the CASS report which I have quoted in full:
“Anti-corruption agency at bottom of transparency list”
By Zhao Yinan (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-02-25 07:56
BEIJING – Fifty-one out of 59 government administrations under the State Council and 70 percent of 43 selected city governments failed to pass an administrative transparency evaluation, according to a blue book report released on Thursday.
The blue book, an annual report on China’s rule of law that was released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said administrative transparency has become the government’s “shortcoming” and needs “improvement”.
The report reviewed the implementation of the Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information, a guideline issued by the State Council in 2007. To do so, it looked at information provided on the official websites of the administrations and city governments it was evaluating.
On the national level, the research panel chose “budget information” as the realm to assess the transparency of ministries and government administrations.
The highest score of 68 points on the centesimal system was earned by the Ministry of Science and Technology. It was followed by the National Population and Family Planning Commission and the State Forestry Administration.
The National Bureau of Corruption Prevention and the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine were at the bottom of the list, each with less than 10 points. More than 50 percent of the administrations being assessed scored between 30 and 50.
When assessing city governments, the panel used two perspectives, adding “information on food safety” as an item to be reviewed this time in addition to the “information on house demolition” subject that was also used last year.
A total of 13 local governments scored more than 60 points.
Ningbo government, in East China’s Zhejiang province, topped the list with 71 points, while the government of Lanzhou, capital of Northwest China’s Gansu province, was the bottom with a paltry 6 points.
Tian He, the book’s executive editor-in-chief and an expert in rule of law studies with the academy, told China Daily that most governments failed to meet the requirement of the State Council’s regulation because of “a lack of determination from top officials”.
“In fact, if people in high positions don’t care about government transparency, such requirements from the public seem useless,” Tian admitted.
Asked to comment on the poor performance of the country’s anti-corruption authority, Tian stressed that the index used for the evaluation was “objective”.
The Chinese media certainly has a role to play; by informing her citizens about the regulations, about this CASS report, and to put pressure on top officials to enforce compliance.
Despite the recent CASS report showing many government entities failing in the transparency evaluation, I think the mechanisms are really in place to allow for an improving trend. From the top level down, failing entities will be required to improve. From a grounds level up, Chinese citizens are taking those entities to court for non-compliance.
Even for relatively more open societies like the U.S., transparency is still a goal. U.S. President Obama is widely known for his efforts in using the Internet to reach American citizens. Here is Obama’s official directive to his administration on open and transparent government. A snippet of the memo is below, and the U.S. and Chinese ideas are basically identical:
Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.
Web sites containing articles and documents by themselves are not necessarily enough. A lot must come together. In China’s case, a tremendous number of laws have been adopted in the last few decades, and more are yet to come. As I have written in the past, the number of legal professionals in China are still 1 to 9000 citizens. While the U.S. is a very litigious society, 1 legal professional serves 300 citizens, China still has a ways to go in terms of manpower to reach something in between.
Rule of law and transparency is also about the government articulating policies and connecting with specific incidents at all levels. Already ingrained in Western societies is this idea of official spokesperson for every levels of government. China is finally taking it seriously:
In an unprecedented move, 13 departments under the CPC Central Committee and all departments under the State Council, the top court and the top procuratorate, as well as provincial-level Party committees and governments in 31 municipalities, provinces and autonomous regions on the Chinese mainland have designated their spokespersons.
The names and telephone numbers of these spokespersons were released in both Chinese and English at the news conference.
In the past year, central and provincial authorities also held 1,876 news conferences, 230 more than in 2009, according to figures from the State Council Information Office.
This marks tremendous progress in improving information transparency, and the next step is to increase the professionalism of official spokespersons, a leading scholar said.
I recall during the 2008 Olympics Torch Relay through London, the then Chinese Ambassador to U.K. talked about the need to have better trained media spokesperson for China. Western governments are much more sophisticated in this aspect.
Today, I came across this article in China Daily, and I am reminded China continues to move towards the right direction.
Adopting the spokesperson mechanism is a convenient way to guarantee the public’s right to know. With spokespersons in place, local Party organizations will find themselves under considerable pressure if they remain silent on matters of concern.
I suppose people could have frequent revolutions every time they feel dissatisfied with their government. That is hardly a way to move forward. If a revolution is to happen theoretically, these 2008 regulations will still have to be implemented once the government is toppled. How is that possible without a government?
If Western media wants a responsible stake in all this, then follow Chinese regulations and demand the various levels of governments in China to provide information they are required to share. And, stop paying lip-service to calls for revolutions.
China has enjoyed tremendous growth in the last few decades. That took place despite these regulations not fully in place. To me, that is an indication of strong leadership. We will continue to monitor this CASS report in the coming years, and as long as government transparency improves, we will also see corruptions and inefficiencies continually wring out of Chinese society.