Ruling could help citizens seeking official information
A new interpretation of the law by the courts may make it easier for citizens frustrated in their efforts in seeking information from the government to sue the department in question.
The ruling specifies situations in which a government department may be sued under the Open Government Information Regulations.
Since coming into effect in 2008, these have been criticised as being vague and unevenly enforced.
A court must now accept a lawsuit under one of five scenarios, including: if the government department fails to respond or to respond in time to a request for information; if the response fails to meet legal standards; or if a citizen believes that the release of the information infringes on his or her privacy.
'More specific rules make it easier for citizens to bring lawsuits,' Professor Wang Yukai of the Chinese Academy of Governance said.
Public rights lawyer Yu Fangqiang said: 'It is now clear that if we think the answers are not good enough, we can sue.'
However, while legal experts hailed the new interpretation as a step forward in making the regulations more operable, they said much more needs to be done to foster the 'sunshine administration' that the authorities have promised.
The ruling is the latest move to make government policies and decision-making more transparent since the train accident in Wenzhou on July 23 threw the country's leadership into crisis.
This month, the State Council issued an opinion stating formally for the first time that 'making information public is the rule; not making it public is the exception'.
But Yu pointed out that the new judicial interpretation fails to address several common problems he faced when making requests under the information regulations.
'The new interpretation still requires one to prove that the information he or she seeks is relevant to his or her livelihood, production or research,' Yu said. 'The message is: being a citizen is not sufficient to seek such information - which should be made public in the first place.'
The interpretation also gives courts greater discretion to turn down a citizen's request if a government department claims the requested information concerns state secrets or business secrets - with no avenue for disputing that classification. Another problem is that a government department may claim it does not have certain information, which the interpretation specifies as one of 12 scenarios in which a court could turn down a request.
'Once I asked for the number of handicapped employees in a government department, as our law said that each department must fill 1.5 per cent of its staff with handicapped citizens. But the department said it did not have such information,' Yu said.
'Now the interpretation might make it harder for us to sue under such circumstances.'
Other legal experts call for more fundamental changes.
'The regulation should be elevated to the status of a law,' said Professor Xiong Wenzhao. 'Also, government officials must be trained to embrace an open government attitude, as well as be equipped with technical knowledge to provide useful information to the public.'
He cited recent instances of government departments making their expenditures public but where the numbers provided did not allow for meaningful analysis.