New challenges to environmental transparency

Recent rulings on open government information have been received enthusiastically by Chinese environmentalists and concerned citizens, writes Tang Hao. But weaknesses in the judicial process are still holding back progress.

China's measures on open government information, which came into effect on May 1, 2008, have created a legislative framework for the disclosure of environmental data held by the government. Since then, the issue has become how to implement these rules in a way that benefits Chinese politics and the green movement.

In the three months since the regulations became effective, the government has been more forthcoming in its release of environmental information. Prominent Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun said that from June 9 to June 26, 2008, 1,000 new pieces of information were added to databases mapping water and air pollution; compared to 2,000 pieces of data added between 2004 and 2006. The new rules also increased public interest in freedom of information: as of June 30, the government information section of the Beijing municipal government website has received almost 15 million visits; officials responded to 25,000 enquiries and handled 520 information requests.

However, problems still arise when members of the public request specific information. The week after the new laws came into effect, Zhu Fuxiang, a resident of Beijing, requested a copy of the the municipal urban planning commission's response to an environmental impact assessment on a building project in Sijiqing township. In response, he was only given details of the designs. He then asked the Sijiqing authorities to explain what two buildings in the town were used for, and he was told that the information he had requested did not exist. Zhu asked the municipal commission on land and resources for details of land use in Mentou New Village, and received only documents approving the land appropriation. Requests for information are being met with irrelevant answers, and applicants are told being that the information they requested does not exist or cannot be made public. 

Many of these applicants have had to resort to legal channels, but the effectiveness of the judicial process is limited. On May 4, five citizens of Rucheng county, Hunan province, tried to take their local government to court for failing to release information, but both the local and city courts refused to accept the case. Zhu Fuxiang was rejected, too. Another applicant, Huang Youjian, is still waiting for a written response from the court. Cases that attempt to push this process forward are invariably knocked back.

The government controls about 80% of all environmental information in China. Keeping that information under wraps makes life easier for people who want to make policy decisions in private. But increasing pollution incidents and the resulting unrest are, to a great degree, caused by this lack of transparency. China’s environmental movement has grown from a mere idea into a major player in a game of overlapping interests. Obstacles to open environmental information represent an intensification of this game.

A major sticking point is the difference between government releases of information and citizens' requests for information. The information the government holds may not be the same as the information the public wants; in some cases the government simply cannot provide the data that citizens request. The government simply needs to manage its information more efficiently.

The Freedom of Information Act in the United Kingdom came into effect in 2000, but it took until 2005 for the "general right of access" to be provided for citizens. Given the government's challenges in managing information, the situation may take even longer in China. In the cases I have mentioned, some of the information genuinely did not exist, had been lost or could not be retrieved, although the possibility of deliberate cover-ups cannot be entirely discounted. Moreover, failing to provide information or delaying the release of data incurs no punishment at all, meaning the government is unlikely to be keen to assist.

Participants in the game have not yet understood all the rules. The Chinese public, seeing their aspirations for freedom of information embodied in the regulations, have embraced the concept enthusiastically. The government, however, is used to a different set of rules, where information is traded to gain resources. Therefore information is concealed in order to maintain the government's own status. The public demand information, but the government is institutionally opposed to providing it, and increases the negative impact of refusals.

Legal options for resolving such conflicts are unfortunately powerless. Creating a system to implement this legislation requires judicial interpretation, but the courts do not currently understand how to handle such cases and simply reject them. This in turn encourages the government to shirk their responsibilities. At the root of this problem is that the Chinese government has a higher status than the courts, which are funded by local government. Local party committees will have a member responsible for managing judicial issues. This imbalance in status means that the courts are unable to handle disputes over freedom of information between the public and the government.

Despite failings in the current arrangements, no one can deny the historical advance that is represented by these new regulations, which give a legal basis to the public’s right to know. Civil society needs to encourage the government to release information of its own accord, both as a habit and a duty. Throughout this process, the media will have a vital and unique role in publicising laws and, when necessary, engaging, unifying and strengthening public efforts. 

If open information is a game played between competing interests, the goal should be to realise a win-win situation that all can accept. The government cannot be passive in this game. The laws contain explicit provisions on the scope, methods and processes of open information, and strict implementation will improve government efficiency. The government should create an information ombudsman to oversee information transparency; it should also establish detailed processes for information management, including data collection, storage, maintenance, exchange and publishing; it should collect and publish statistics on information transparency on a regular basis; and it should impose punishments on governments and officials who fail to release information in a timely fashion.

The courts should be open to the public; case law and judicial interpretations should clarify the rights and duties of the public and the government. The courts could determine time limits for the release of information and decide the compensation for cases when information is not released. Only then will we have a complete freedom of information system. On this front, there is good news. According to the Southern Weekend newspaper, China's supreme court has commissioned a review of these questions by the courts in Shanghai, and their interpretations should be released in the near future.


Tang Hao, born in 1974, is a newspaper columnist, deputy editor of Shimin (Citizen) magazine, and assistant professor of politics at Huanan Normal University. His essays and opinion pieces have appeared in Contemporary International Relations, International Studies, Nanfang Daily, Yangcheng Evening News, Southern Window and many other publications.

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