China Restates Openness Policy in New Guidance

4 August 2011

The Chinese government Aug. 2 urged government officials to be more open, a development greeted both with hope and cynicism.

The new statement does not create any new legal requirements for transparency but was viewed by some as a significant restatement in support of proactive openness.

Others were less sanguine and noted the policy’s appearance in the wake of widespread criticism of the government for lack of openness concerning the July 23 train collision in Wenzhou.

Among other things, the so-called Joint Opinions says that the results of official investigations and the measures the government has taken to handle the emergencies should be released to the public in an “objective and timely manner.”

The Basics

The announcement of the Joint Opinions came from the State Council, China’s Cabinet, and the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

The Chinese government also published on the official government website an explanation of the opinions in Q&A format. This says the opinions have been under drafting since 2009, building on the 2005 Party-State Council Opinions on Promoting Open Government Affairs, went through multiple seminars and drafts during 2010 and only now were finalized and released, with the new content being the part about establishing a nationwide government services (service center, one-stop shop for approvals and other services) system.

Also see an English article on the official central government website, a basic news article in the China Daily and a critical article in Asia News.

Horsley Provides Explanation

Jamie Horsley, Deputy Director, The China Law Center and Senior Research Scholar & Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School, told that the Joint Opinions are akin to an executive order in the United States, “setting the tone in a way that is binding as a policy matter on government agencies, even though they do not create any new rights on the part of the public to enforce them.”

“Importantly in the area of deepening open government affairs, they re-state a presumption of disclosure of government-held information, pronouncing that disclosure is to be the principle, nondisclosure the exception, a phrase that does not appear in the OGI Regulations themselves,” Horsley said.

Horsley explained further:

They encourage agencies to do a better job of disclosing proactively the kinds of information the public is particularly interested in, including government budgets and finances, major projects and the handling of “sudden incidents” or emergencies, and to be more transparent about the process as well as the result of government decisionmaking.  They instruct all localities and departments to make open government and government service a part of the performance evaluation of government agencies and Party officials’ assessments.

Of course, these are general principles that will not necessarily lead to an immediate impact.  Nonetheless, they provide an authoritative policy framework that is more conducive to continued local and departmental experimentation and improvement of government information disclosure and more open and participatory governance practices and policies.

Doubts Expressed

David Bandurski, writing for the China Media Project blog, commented in an Aug. 3 posting that the announcement was “purely a regurgitation” of previously expressed principles and cited their issuance 10 days after the train crash.

He also wrote:

Of course, critics are right on the money in pointing out that this is just more official-speak on top of official-speak, and the critical question is how to implement these principles. The National Ordinance on Open Government Information has been in effect for more than three years, but clearly it did nothing to create real openness or accountability within the railway ministry — where the push to develop high-speed rail has been in high gear since around 2007, and a truly open look at the books would certainly have set off warning bells.

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