Archives prove a great source of information, old and new
SHANGHAI HAS opened the city's archives to requests for information, offering a glimpse of the inner workings of the local government and a treasure trove of historical material.
In the city's western suburbs, a building resembling a concrete bunker holds Shanghai's history for the years before and after the Communist Party came to power in 1949.
Starting this week, residents and foreigners will be able to see for the first time the texts of rules that are now in effect, including so-called 'red top documents' - important edicts named for the red characters at the top.
The Shanghai Municipal Archives previously only allowed viewing of documents issued at least 30 years ago.
Shanghai is the first major municipality to allow viewing of current documents, though some smaller provinces such as Anhui have partly opened up their archives. Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing have yet to follow suit for current documents.
Shanghai officials said rapid economic growth and the sheer volume of new rules and laws prompted the move. China joined the World Trade Organisation last December and has pledged to make its laws more transparent.
Officials said the new openness was part of a move towards improving the legal system and to welcome the upcoming 16th Communist Party Congress in November. The congress is expected to approve a major leadership shuffle and give private entrepreneurs a greater role in the party.
'Documents are a requirement of the legal system,' one official said.
Not all documents are on display. Officials said some material was 'confidential', including materials considered vital to state security.
Personal dossiers, the so-called dangan which the government uses to keep track of its citizens, are off limits.
One middle-aged man looking for information to help in a labour dispute came up empty-handed.
The archivist explained: 'We just have what they give us.'
The archives had managed to assemble a collection of nearly 20,000 documents regarding current rules from more than 100 government bodies, officials said.
In Shanghai, historical documents from before 1966 are also available by request, mainly by scholars and people trying to trace their genealogy.
Under Chinese law, archival materials can be released after 30 years.
But Shanghai has fallen slightly behind, given the need to cull through the documents, decide what can be released and bind them into books.
Archivists are also approaching the years of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, which has presented a problem.
Besides chaotic record-keeping during the period, officials fear release of materials about 'struggle sessions' could be harmful to the families of the original targets - and their accusers.
During a recent visit to the archives, a Japanese graduate student pored over documents, some of them handwritten, dating from the 1950s for his master's degree on China's economic policies.
'Beijing is more conservative about its archives than Shanghai,' he said, looking around the crowded reading room.
The number of residents viewing the archives has surged since Monday, the first day current documents could be viewed.
Eighty people visited the archives on Tuesday after local newspapers reported the move.
Many residents are seeking information about Shanghai's property laws, such as the amount of compensation they can claim if the government requests they move to make way for new projects.
Others are interested in medical and social security schemes, issues which affect their everyday lives.
Current documents covered everything from laws on residence permits, the rights of consumers, education, environmental protection and quality supervision, officials said.
Some of the information is already available directly from government departments or the Internet.
The archives bureau has a Web site (www.archives.sh.cn), which it aims to improve to offer more information.
For those unable to access the Internet or who want to hold the actual documents in their hands, the archives await.
The archive hall is located at 326 Xinxia Road. By the end of last year, the archives had 2.13 million files including 1.16 million dating since 1949.
Visitors are asked to sign in at the gate and store their bags before making requests to view documents. The hours are 9am to 4pm from Monday to Friday.
Foreigners need their passports and local residents their identity cards. Foreigners also need a letter of introduction.
The catalogue for the archives is available on a computer database and file, but only in Chinese. Requests need to have a document number.
There is no charge for the service, though there is a fee for copying documents.