It is common in western films to see ordinary members of the public going into government institutions, asking for some government-held information, and easily obtaining what they want. To the Chinese public, this appears like something out of a fairytale. Chinese government information at all levels seems to be inherently either "confidential", a "state secret", or "top secret". If a Chinese citizen comes to know any of this information, and accidentally passes it on to someone else, he or she can be prosecuted under the "law on guarding state secrets". Government information has always been the exclusive domain of government officials.
But now things are about to change. On 24 April 2007, China promulgated new regulations on the release of state information, which will come into effect from 1 May 2008. Chinese citizens will then be able to try out a new set of rights, and officials who do not comply with requests for information could be taken to court. This can be seen as a sign of progress, and as a beachhead for the democratisation process in China.
This historical regulation has an interesting background story. Legal experts who drew up drafts of the regulations have revealed that research started in 1998. Back then no one even dared specify the theme of the research as "the release of government information". They would only say that they were looking at its "administration and use". Progress in such a sensitive area was slow.
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper
Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:
"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)
"China: a 'great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)
"China's contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)
"Hong Kong's example"
(7 February 2007)
"Will China follow Vietnam's lead?"
(21 February 2007)
"Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning"
(7 March 2007)
"What China's new property law means"
(21 March 2007)
"The Chinese 'nail house': a Chongqing saga" (4 April 2007)
"'Public opinion' and China's Japan policy"
(18 April 2007)
The Sars revolution
In 2003 the public-health disaster that was the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) outbreak changed all this. At the start of February 2003, cases of Sars in Guangzhou were reaching epidemic proportions, but official information was nowhere to be seen. All media outlets in Guangzhou received three official emergency notices forbidding them from reporting on the outbreak. It was already three months into the epidemic when the Guangzhou municipal government and Guangdong provincial health bureau held a press conference at which they announced that the outbreak was under control. However, they did not widely distribute information about whether or not the disease was contagious, its symptoms or treatment.
During this time of public ignorance about the disease, Sars started to spread across the entire country from Guangdong. On 3 April 2003, health minister Zhang Wenkang was still claiming at a press conference that "China is safe". The spread of the disease to Beijing led eventually to the sackings of the mayor of Beijing and the health minister. The Sars disaster led to mass public panic and the credibility of the government was severely damaged. It was only after this sequence of events that the momentum towards freedom-of-information legislation began to accelerate.
It is obvious that these regulations are being brought in for pragmatic reasons. In a state with such centralised power, the legitimacy of the central government is severely threatened when local officials - thinking about their own careers - instinctively cover up negative news, often leading to the problems getting worse, and provoking the public into mass protests. According to reports, one of the bodies pressing for the adoption of the regulations was the Central Commission for Inspecting Discipline. In China, no group has a better understanding of the depth and breadth of official corruption than the commission.
This body has seen that the measures currently available to it cannot contain corruption in China, and prime minister Wen Jiabao recently admitted that "corruption is becoming increasingly serious". Corruption is everywhere in Chinese society. Every group or institution controlling a given resource will use this leverage to snatch whatever benefits it can and engage in secret exchanges. It is hard for the government to find out about these exchanges, and because the public do not know what is going on, the public interest is also harmed. It is now a matter of urgency that freedom of access to information and the right to supervision is handed to the public.
These measures, which the government is being forced into taking, will have a side effect about which the government will feel uneasy: freedom of speech will be widened. In January 2007, the General Administration of Press and Publications (Gapp) banned eight books from being published. One of the banned authors strongly protested the decision, causing a public outcry. Many well-known intellectuals posted essays on the subject online, and many foreign media outlets reported the story.
Under pressure from public opinion, a deputy head of Gapp explained privately that one of the books was banned because of objections from two deputy heads of the National People's Congress, another because it revealed some historical facts which "made some old comrades unhappy", and yet another because it referred to documents that had not been approved for public release. If the new regulations had come into effect, the authors would definitely have demanded to know why their books had been banned and the government would have had to publicise the reasons - but which of these reasons is actually legitimate and could be publicly admitted? As well as individuals, the Chinese media will also be able to use the regulations to play an important role in publicising information.
Of course, government openness and transparency is not going to improve instantly just because of one set of regulations. But the public now has a new weapon which can be used to keep the government in check. Over a long period of time the regulations will come to be used by a public increasingly aware of its rights. Government officials who know that their actions may be publicised will have to think about the consequences of acting illegally. Each single case of information being released will be a step on the path to constitutional government in China.