A small step to transparency
There is something to please both the public and secretive officials in a new judicial interpretation of China's laws on the release of government information. The courts must now accept a lawsuit against the government under five scenarios, including failure to respond in time to an information request, or at all. But there are 12 scenarios in which the courts can turn down a request, including greater discretion to do so if officials claim that it involves state or business secrets. And the department concerned can also claim not to have certain information. One public-rights lawyer recalls a department saying it did not have information on the number of handicapped people it employed, even though the law said it must be 1.5 per cent of the total. That said, the interpretation may make it easier for citizens to sue under the Open Government Information Regulations passed in 2008, which have been criticised as vague and unevenly enforced. The same lawyer, Yu Fangqiang, says more specific rules make it clear that 'if we think the answers are not good enough, we can sue'.
This comes less than two weeks after the State Council ordered more transparent official handling of emergencies and other issues of widespread interest. The catalyst for that was public outrage over the government's handling of last month's deadly high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. Specifically, according to state media, officials must provide information about their reaction to events and mitigation measures, and release findings of investigations - all conspicuously lacking in the Wenzhou disaster.
Like the State Council's orders, the interpretation amounts at best to small, incremental recognition of the need for more government accountability and transparency. Given the lack of an independent judiciary, mainlanders cannot expect too much of it. But it should have been done a long time ago, without waiting for a tragic accident to trigger it.