China Announces Rules to Require Government Disclosures

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 24, 2007; Page A14

BEIJING, April 24 -- China on Tuesday announced far-reaching new rules for disclosure of official information that would require local governments to reveal their accounts and inform farmers about the finances of often controversial land seizures.

The decree, which takes effect May 1, 2008, would mark a dramatic change in the way Chinese officials work if it were genuinely applied in Beijing and the hundreds of thousands of villages and towns where governments and Communist Party committees make most of their decisions in secrecy. The official New China News Agency called it a "landmark" decision that makes "the most specific and progressive" changes to China's tradition of official secrecy since Communist rule began in 1949.

"Governments at various levels are required to give out information which involves the immediate interests of individuals and groups, which should be known by the masses, and which explains administrative institutions and procedures," the agency quoted the decree as saying.

The decree, signed by Premier Wen Jiabao, listed requirements to reveal such subjects as local government plans for handling emergencies, the allocation of government expenses and the results of investigations into environmental threats, public health and tainted medicines. It also specified that local governments must reveal the terms of land seizures and the amount of compensation paid to farmers who lose their fields.

This is an explosive issue, as thousands of villages have risen up against local authorities over land seizures in recent years. Typically, the farmers have alleged that officials abused their authority to seize the land for resale to developers, compensating the farmers at a low price and charging the developers much higher prices -- then pocketing the difference. Enforcing a requirement that these transactions be public would help halt such abuses.

But China's recent history has been filled with central government decrees that are not fully enforced around the country. In that light, it remained unclear whether Wen's decree would have the power to turn around a half-century of traditional secrecy, particularly where corrupt local officials rely on secrecy to cover collusion with businessmen and embezzlement of public funds.

In addition, the decree laid down potential restrictions for public disclosure, saying any information that affects state security, public safety, "normal economic operations" and social stability should not be revealed. If interpreted by local officials with economic interests in illicit activity, those exceptions may create an area where secrecy could still thrive.

But the decree said local groups could appeal to higher authorities if they are refused information they believe they are entitled to.

Wen and President Hu Jintao recently have urged what they call public supervision of government actions, implying that China's 1.3 billion people have a right to point out malfeasance and lead authorities to prosecute it. The decree issued Tuesday fit in with that theme, saying citizens have a right to know what is going on in their communities.

In practice, however, most Chinese are deprived of that right by rigorous party censorship of television stations and newspapers. The decree did not explain how the new rules would fit in with that censorship.