As mainland law shows, knowledge is power

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong usually leads the mainland when it comes to people-friendly policies, but the opposite is the case with just-announced regulations on access to information. When the order takes effect next year, all levels of government across the border should, in theory, be more transparent than here.

Of course, policy and implementation are often separate issues on the mainland and whether the new rules will mean much is a matter of government sincerity. Nonetheless, in spirit alone, they represent more than Hong Kong has with regard to public documents.

The regulations will require administrations to respond within 20 days to requests for information on any matter other than that relating to privacy, commercial confidentiality and state secrets. A mechanism to file complaints against officials or to sue them if they do not comply also will be implemented.

While the move will shed more light than is presently being permitted on a host of issues from government finances to land seizures to environmental policy, the objective is to reduce corruption. Only through knowing what a government is doing can people truly keep tabs on it.

Such a process is lacking in Hong Kong. We have freedom of expression, as defined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into the Basic Law. This provides the right for citizens to express themselves freely and to access information - but does not mean that the government is able or even obliged to hand over what is being asked for.

Although Hong Kong has guidelines on accessing information and applications can be made for specific documents and data, there is no properly maintained archive. Even if there were a repository for paper and electronic information detailing the goings-on of government, no law exists to ensure that any be scrutinised.

The mainland has had an archive law since 1987 and from May 1 next year, citizens will have a legal right to access most of it. Such forward thinking will leave us, quite literally, in the dark when it comes to our government and its performance.