Hunt for elusive tariff list ends in bureaucratic tangle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 1996, 12:00am

THE publication of China's new import tariff list is one of the most significant developments in the mainland's trade regime this decade.

With an overall tariff reduction of 35 percentage points, bringing the average tariff rate for goods imported into China to 23 per cent, Beijing has gone a long way to lay the groundwork for its much anticipated entry into the World Trade Organisation.

One might expect it would be in the government's interest to make the list of new tariff rates as widely known as possible so as to gain maximum publicity for its new liberal trade practices. But apparently, that is not the case.

The list is being published section by section in International Business, the newspaper of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation (Moftec) which has a circulation of only 360,000 for the entire country.

Furthermore, one cannot just go to a newsstand to buy a copy of the paper - newsstands in Beijing these days only seem to sell tabloids about film stars and pop singers.

The only way to get a copy is to take out a subscription for a whole year, that at least is according to the circulation manager at the newspaper.

Asked if it would be possible just to go around to the paper's office in southern Beijing and buy a copy there, the manager said the newspaper was not able to provide that kind of service. This is despite the fact there are always dozens of spare copies in the lobby of the paper's office.

Once you do subscribe, it can take weeks before the first copy is actually delivered to your mail box. But even if you do manage to get hold of a copy of the elusive broadsheet, there is no guarantee you will find the information you are looking for.

Although the complete list of more than 4,000 items has been finalised and approved by the State Council, International Business is only publishing it in a piecemeal fashion, with no advance warning of when the next section will be published or what that section will contain.

It is basically pot luck every time you pick up the paper whether there will be a section of the list you are interested in or even if there will be a section of the list at all.

Given that Moftec does have the full list in its possession and given that the ministry does have hundreds of well-trained English-speaking staff, it might seem reasonable for the ministry to translate the list and make it available to both foreign and domestic companies in China.

But Moftec has seemingly chosen to eschew that approach, adopting instead for the time honoured method of gradual, carefully controlled dissemination down through the party and government and finally to the general public.

China's economy has undergone remarkable progress and liberalisation over the past decade but information dissemination in many respects is still in the dark ages.

The central government still jealously controls the flow of information in China, releasing news, or rather its version of the news, only when it sees fit.

The flow of economic information has improved over recent years but it is still carefully screened and processed before being made available to the public.

Only when the government loosens its iron grip on the flow of information will measures to liberalise the economy and trade regime have any real impact.