Amid concerns over increasing restrictions to freedom of information in the United States, the Chinese government appears to be moving in the opposite direction, issuing new, broader guidelines for “public information.”
The new regulations, issued by the State Council on Tuesday and appearing in major newspapers Wednesday, cover eight main areas all aimed at broadening and deepening the range of subjects people should be able to get information on, including state-owned enterprises, universities and how public servants spend state money.
Critics of the Chinese government have long argued that it is too secretive and that it maintains an enormous gray area of “state secrets” that hinders work by reporters and the ability of members of the public to know about their government and country. However in practice, while the system is imperfect, people may obtain some information on a wide range of issues like business and commerce, education and culture, land, taxes and food safety.
The guidelines, issued by the State Council Information Office, are called “Main Points for 2014 Government Public Information Work,” and they order officials to develop a “higher” awareness of the need to share government information and “guarantee” to deliver the requested information. The report ran in many news outlets Wednesday, including the online edition of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily.
“All Public Interest Information to Be Made Public,” ran a front-page headline in The Beijing News.
The text of the State Council report, carried by People’s Daily, ran:
Each region and ministry must increase its knowledge of public information work, strengthen leadership and clearly divide the work, seriously seize implementation and guarantee the main points of the work, and deliver on each task.
Provinces and ministries must report their public information figures at the end of the year and will be judged by their work, the regulations said:
By the end of 2014, every region and ministry must report to the State Council Office how much they have realized the main points of public information work, and the office will investigate and report the outcome of its investigations.
Accompanying a double-page spread in The Beijing News was a graphic that showed how many items of information were voluntarily issued by 23 ministries or government departments in 2013, and how many were delivered via freedom of information requests from the public.
The biggest figure for both was in commerce: the Ministry of Commerce issued 452,000 items of information in 2013, and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce released 4,753 items of information upon application by the public, the graphic said.
The largest amount of information voluntarily released by a province was 980,000 items for Shaanxi, while Shandong, a more populous province, released 93,000 that year. However, Shandong issued 33,306 items of information upon request, whereas Shaanxi issued just 3,302, according to the figures, which did not detail what kinds of information were involved.
Freedom of information requests in China are patchy. Last June, a Beijing lawyer, Xie Yanyi, applied to the Ministry of Public Security for information on spying by security officials on citizens, especially surveillance on online and telephone communications. (The ministry’s 2013 report on its public information work is here, in Chinese.)
An answer to Mr. Xie’s freedom of information request came in August — a checked box on a bureaucratic form saying, ‘‘Not within the parameters of government information.’’
The Beijing News interviewed a law professor at Peking University, Wang Xixin, who addressed the issue of state secrets.
“The hot issues that the public pays attention to are often also sensitive issues,” Mr. Wang told the newspaper. Some ministries and officials argued that such requests contravened state secrets requirements, he said.
Enshrining the right to access information in a law, rather than as less powerful regulations, as is currently the case, could help, he said.
In a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the concerns of shrinking freedom of information in the United States were described this way:
In the Obama administration’s Washington, government officials are increasingly afraid to talk to the press. Those suspected of discussing with reporters anything that the government has classified as secret are subject to investigation, including lie-detector tests and scrutiny of their telephone and e-mail records.
The report cited Scott Shane, The New York Times’s national security reporter:
There’s a gray zone between classified and unclassified information, and most sources were in that gray zone. Sources are now afraid to enter that gray zone. It’s having a deterrent effect. If we consider aggressive press coverage of government activities being at the core of American democracy, this tips the balance heavily in favor of the government.
In China, where reporters are subject to strict censorship, lawyers have been in the vanguard of pushing the limits of public information.
The Beijing News cited a case in Guangdong Province, where a lawyer, Wu Youshui, last year made a public information request on what the family-planning authorities did with the money from fines paid by families who had more children than allowed by law.
According to the Guangdong family planning commission, nearly 1.5 billion renminbi, or $243 million, was collected in 2012. But the commission told Mr. Wu in July the information was an “internal management” issue and declined to say how the money was collected and used.
Mr. Wu appealed to the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, which has just ruled against the commission’s reply, The Beijing News said. The court said that the commission must respond to Mr. Wu within 15 working days.
By Didi Kirsten Tatlow, April 2, 2014 in The New York Times