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Shanghai opens to public 'red-titled' documents
By Pan Haixia (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-02-13 15:20

Whether a government document is a work report or a landscape blueprint, as long as its release would not infringe an individual's right to privacy, breach commercial confidentiality or reveal State secrets, it will soon be open to the public.

Shanghai residents could buy the government document at the newspaper stands across the city. [newsphoto]
A newly passed regulation which comes into force in Shanghai in May has, for the first time, given local residents the right to ask the government for any public information they wish to know, even if it is only to satisfy their own curiosity.

The new regulation also requires local government bodies to release their so-called "red-titled documents" on official websites and bulletin boards to ensure easy access and transparency. Hard copies of these files should be available in the local archives.

Such wide publicity of government information is unprecedented in the city, although many local Westerners would consider it natural.

"Of course they should do that. This is one basic responsibility of governments," responded Florian Luthi, a newly arrived Swiss businessman in Shanghai.

Yet many locals still can't believe the long delayed thaw is really coming, as from ancient times, officials in China have been taught that it is better for the government to issue orders instead of letting people make their own decisions by making information available.

This was based on the worry that too much information - especially bad news - might cause chaos.

Until recently, the common practice of governments was still to keep all information to themselves. Publicity was considered to be the exception, but that also needed the approval of many higher ranking officials.

Info revolution

Due to the lack of information, even the most trivial thing, such as getting a licence plate for a bicycle, may involve residents in a round of trips to get all the necessary documents together. This could be avoided if there was a paper setting out clearly what documents were needed.

Many Chinese have also had the experience of suddenly being asked to do something or to pay a certain fee because a new "red-titled document" had been issued which they knew nothing about.

"The situation has seen much improvement in the past few years with the government paying more attention to their service function," said Zhu Mang, a professor with East China University of Law and Politics. "Yet unfairness caused by the lack of transparency still exists."

He cited as an example the practice of keeping secret from ordinary citizens the existence of some "red-titled documents". However, the heads of State-owned enterprises were allowed to read the documents because they had official status with the government.

"This is unfair to the many private companies and foreign invested ones," Zhu said.

In the new policy, anyone may ask the governments for information which relates to the economy, social management and public services. At the same time the governments will actively publicize their policies during the policy-making period and invite the public to voice their opinions to ensure the policies are soundly based.

"It is a revolution," said Ma Ling, a local Congress deputy. At the last Congress meeting in January, she proposed a bill designed to improve the transparency of government work.

"The government acquires some 80 per cent of all the information in society. Yet the old system, designed to keep a tight lid on secrets, has put most of this information in a rigid and separated situation, ignoring the fact that a lot was simply public information which contained no real secrets as set out in the country's Secrecy Law."

Yet mingled with the excitement are also worries and doubts.

As fast as Shanghai is in putting forward the new regulation, it is still lagging behind Guangzhou. At the end of 2002, the capital of South China's Guangdong Province took the lead in the country by legislating on the right of the public to have access to government information. The openness of the Guangzhou government was widely praised in the media nationwide.

However, when the SARS outbreak occurred shortly afterwards, the government did not live up to what was promised under the new regulation.

This time, the attention has shifted to Shanghai.

Openness in practice

"Most of the transparency work the city did before was more like an 'image' project, intended merely to put the government in a good light with little practical meaning," Zhu said.

The new regulation is different. It has for the first time made the publicizing of information a binding responsibility of government, giving locals the right to sue the government if it does not make a written response to a request for information within 10 days of receiving the application.

However, if officials sometimes don't want to release certain information, they can still find loopholes in the new rules.

The new regulation asks the government departments to make a list of all information they hold so as to make it easier for people to search. Yet what happens if some officials deliberately keep information off the list?

"We don't lack examples in which officials treat the information they have acquired as their individual possession, or rather a commodity which makes money for them," Zhu said.

Yet something worrying him even more is the insufficient attention in the regulation as how citizens can seek help if their requests are rejected for no proper reason.

The right of citizens to litigate if they fail to get any response from government makes up only three of the total 38 lines in the regulation.

"Without sufficient protection, people's interest may soon die away, if they experience several instances of being denied information," he said.

The legislators have also noticed the problem. To ensure the law is well enforced, the regulation refers to the reporting system in the US.

The city's Information Commission has to make a public report before March 31 every year about the previous year's information release work, including statistics of applications made by the people, results of litigation and ways to further improve the system.

"Anyway, as the legislation is still new to China, whether it merely withers away in the existing system or becomes a real source of momentum for the country's democracy is still too early to say," Zhu said.

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