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June 29, 09

NEWS / New Chinese Information Regulation Off to Good Start, Experts Say Economic factors seen as a help t

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Staff Writer

Washington — As an exercise in participatory governance and a check on corruption, China’s new open government information (OGI) regulation is off to a good start, specialists in freedom of information (FOI) law say. But challenges remain, especially in the area of document disclosure.

“When it comes to freedom of information, if you look at where the Chinese started and where they are now, they have traveled a much greater distance than many countries with which I’m familiar,” said Mitchell Pearlman, a lecturer at the University of Connecticut and an FOI specialist.

For 30 years, Pearlman has worked with officials on FOI laws in 20 U.S. states and more than 20 foreign countries. More than 80 nations now have some form of freedom of information laws.

Many governments face challenges in sharing information. In the United States, it took 10 years of debate before Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was signed into law reluctantly by President Lyndon Johnson on July 4, 1966.

The U.S. law, which allows citizens, groups and businesses to request documents without having to give a reason, applies to both paper and electronic records held by agencies of the executive branch of government. Exemptions to the disclosure rules include certain defense, intelligence, diplomatic and business trade secret matters. (See “Freedom of Information Is Bedrock of Free and Open Societies.”)

China’s OGI regulation, which went into effect nationwide May 1, 2008, requires government agencies at all levels to disclose information upon request from citizens. However, an exemption can be made if the agency determines releasing such material would jeopardize state security, including economic security.

Having OGI means graft and corruption on national, regional and local levels can be and are being exposed, Pearlman told America.gov. “In China, the government views OGI as a way to get people to participate more in the decisionmaking process, especially in the economic area and in the fight against corruption,” he said.

The Chinese still have a long way to go in meeting international norms for disclosing government documents, Pearlman said. “But they are certainly ahead of the game providing official information on open Web sites. Government buildings even have kiosks where citizens can use computers to access information.”

Shanghai was one of the first cities to begin releasing information to the public even before the national OGI regulation went into effect. According to a recent China Daily news report, the city has disclosed more than 400,000 pages of information in the past few years after OGI implementation began in some provinces. However, only 59 percent of the public requests for information in 2008 were granted by Shanghai authorities.

China’s OGI regulation is divided into two parts, Pearlman explained. “One part is working very well, the other not so well. On the one hand, there is a very strong affirmative duty for officials to disseminate information, primarily over Web sites.”

“But there has been less success with the part of the law that allows people to request information,” he added.

Pearlman said that, as with many reforms in China, the economy is “a significant factor” driving implementation of the OGI. “Certainly, there has been a lot of pressure from foreign investors for more openness, but also some internal pressure in China to eliminate some of the corruption surrounding environmental concerns.”

Recent chemical spills in Harbin, and lead and arsenic poisoning in Gansu and Hunan, caused the public, as well as the business community — in China and abroad — to demand more information about pollution and other environmental concerns.

In part because of this environmental impact, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection was one of the first agencies to actively implement the OGI law. More Chinese cities are beginning to disclose information on the environmental impact of local projects — resulting in the nation’s first Pollution Information Transparency Index (PITI) report. The report details the environmental performance of 113 cities for the year 2008.

Jamie Horsley, a lecturer at Yale University Law School, who has consulted in China and closely follows the legal issues regarding freedom of information there, said, “The Chinese leadership’s decision to implement OGI is a remarkable development.”

She told America.gov that the new regulations are “creating a kind of a right to information that imposes an obligation on government agencies” that has allowed courts to act on citizens’ complaints.

Horsley said that in one province, a group of retired workers of a state enterprise unhappy with their pensions requested a copy of the official internal minutes from a meeting regarding pension decisions. They were refused and challenged the case in court.

The court ruled in favor of the citizens, ordering the state-owned enterprise to disclose the meeting minutes. “According to news reports, when the retirees heard the court’s decision they burst into tears because they never believed they would be able to get copies of the records,” Horsley said.

“So it is a very interesting, exciting period,” Horsley said. “It’s the first year we’re seeing a whole new system implemented when most agencies around China had no experience with FOI. We have seen mixed results; but also positive signs like a growing use of the regulations by civil society groups and ordinary people.”

Like Pearlman, Horsley agrees that an important result of OGI is that Chinese leaders now recognize its benefits: “more open government leading to more efficient government, greater trust in government, less corruption and a way for people to manage their own lives better.”

Tags: foreign investors, meeting minutes, foreign investor, document,


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