Beijing reneges on pledges to open to public scrutiny

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 April, 2011, 12:00am


Beijing has yet to show serious commitment to promises it made three years ago to promote greater government transparency and public scrutiny, despite mounting public calls and widespread pollution scandals.

The first national regulation on information disclosure, issued by the State Council on May 1, 2008, was hailed by mainland experts and the media as a breakthrough on improving government transparency.

But three years later, little headway has been made and mainlanders largely remain in the dark about key government decisions, with access to vital information that affects public interests deliberately denied, according to mainland analysts.

They warned that the reluctance of central government agencies and local authorities to limit their own power and enlist public oversight seriously undermined the government's credibility and gave rise to mounting grievances about corruption, pollution and other social woes.

Lawyer Xia Jun, who specialises in legal assistance for pollution victims, said he was deeply disappointed by the government's lack of action on transparency, especially in relation to environmental damage.

The country's environmental watchdog became the first central government agency to issue its own implementation plan for the regulation, less than a week after it was issued, but it has done little to help a public yearning for greater openness.

'As a lawyer on environmental rights, I haven't found the regulation on information disclosure helpful because key information remains inaccessible to the public,' Xia told a seminar this week organised by Friends of Nature, a leading environmental group on the mainland.

His frustration was shared by Li Bo, from Friends of Nature.

The ministries of agriculture and environmental protection recently refused Li's group access to key documents on the building of a controversial dam on the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in Chongqing .

Despite widespread doubts about the cost-effectiveness of the Xiaonanhai dam, and fears that it will have a devastating impact on a nearby national fish reserve, authorities insisted the information requested was not covered by the regulation.

Professor He Bing, a public policy expert at China University of Political Science and Law, said the regulation had failed to rein in the government's unbridled power. 'The biggest obstacle to information disclosure often comes from central government ministries, rather than the much-criticised local authorities,' He said.

Experts say that despite talk about the need to build an accountable government, the authorities have tried to retreat from the regulation's pledges by issuing guidelines limiting the scope of transparency.

Several experts also lashed out at one of the most controversial provisions in the regulation, which says that information disclosure must not undermine the security of the state, the public and the economy, or jeopardise social stability.

Professor Wang Canfa, also from the China University of Political Science and Law, said the authorities had frequently used the provision to block the public's push for greater openness.

The public were often refused access to information ranging from air and water pollution data to plans to build incinerators and landfills - all indiscriminately deemed secrets on the mainland.