Freedom of information ‘act’

A new policy to curb corrupt bureaucrats is not going to plan

Freedom of information ‘act’

Two “adult” film rentals, a duck house and the reimbursement of a £1 charitable donation were three of the more eye-catching examples in this summer’s UK parliamentary expenses scandal.

The full extent of how the country’s lawmakers were bending expense claim rules for personal gain stirred the British public into a slow-burning fury.

Members of parliament even leapfrogged bankers and estate agents as the hate figures du jour.

But such transgressions are small fry compared to some of the illicit goings-on in Chinese public office. Last week, for instance, we reported on the ongoing investigation into Chongqing’s “bribe tribe” culture.

Even so, China’s expense fiddlers are not getting things completely their own way, reports the China Youth Daily – at least, not if Wang Qing has anything to do with it.

Wang, “an insignificant person, working in a call centre”, is in the middle of a legal challenge against the Nanyang city government in Henan province.

What started out as a basic request to scrutinise the expense claims of local officials has grown into a wider struggle for access to information. But Wang is well within his rights to ask for more open disclosure – given that the Regulations on Open Government Information went into effect in May 2008.

In fact, he is one of a number of applicants to act upon the new rules, which require government bureaus at all levels – township, county, provincial and national – to publish information that affects the “vital interests” of citizens.

The new rules – often referred to colloquially as the “sunshine policy” – are part of efforts to improve governance across the country’s vast bureaucracy. In the process, Beijing hopes to curb corruption and strengthen public trust.

Just as well too, as the China Daily reported this month that local cadres are held in increasingly low public esteem. In terms of the “most trustworthy groups”, bureaucrats ranked far below sex workers. “Shamelessness is pervasive”, the newspaper concluded.

But promulgating the new legislation is a different challenge to getting it to work.

The China Elections and Governance Program at the Carter Center at Emory University says that implementation efforts still have some way to go, not least because the central government has not created an agency to enforce disclosure.

Instead it is leaving it up to local governments and their respective departments to respond to individual requests. In Wang’s case, this meant that his first visit to the local government office was ridiculed. “You’ve been reading too many fantasy books,” he was told, before being shown the door.

Undeterred, Wang wrote to 181 government departments, broadening the scope of his enquiries to the titles and job responsibilities of bureaucrats, as well as details on how government objectives were being set and performance was being measured.

Still, he received only 18 replies, none of which he regarded as being of sufficient detail. One response – from the Wolong District Bureau of Land Resources – was mailed back entirely blank. A Carter Center survey suggests Wang’s experience is not unusual. Many government officials are unclear on the regulations, or have not instituted procedures to comply with them.

Others adopted ruses like asking for the identification numbers of the documentation that was being requested – plainly impossible if the documents are being kept secret in the first place.

Petitioners still have further comeback, as they can take the local authorities to court if information is not forthcoming.

Wang did so himself, spending much of his monthly Rmb836 ($122) salary on registering lawsuits. Faced by such an obdurate opponent, some of the departments are relenting. Information has begun to trickle in, although it is a painfully slow process.

But Wang’s legal action is unlikely to unearth all of the information that he wants disclosed.

In similar cases, judges have been reluctant to reach definitive rulings, as there is little precedent. So far, no court has ordered a government bureau to release information in keeping with the rules.

A preferred tactic is to rule that the case is beyond local jurisdiction, and to refer it to a higher body.

Yan Yiming, a Shanghai lawyer, has had just such an experience, albeit in a higher profile case.

Yan, who first made his reputation fighting cases for minority shareholders and then moved on to challenge polluters, has failed in a series of requests for publication of the full details of expenditures under the country’s Rmb4 trillion stimulus package.

So he then tried to go through the courts. But on both occasions so far his case has been thrown out. Judges have claimed a lack of authority to order compliance with the regulations.

The problem, Yan says, is that the laws are in place but that they are not being respected.

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