Lawyer demands that Chinese government open its books

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

BEIJING: A high-profile Chinese lawyer demanded Wednesday that the government open its books to the public, in an unusually direct display of the legal activism that the Communist Party sees as a growing threat to its rule.

Yan Yiming, an attorney who has made his reputation taking on companies that misled investors, presented an application to the Finance Ministry headquarters demanding that it publish details of its 2008 expenditures and 2009 budget.

China's ruling Communist Party discloses only the barest outline of its spending plans to a submissive Parliament every year. Yan wants the government to live up to pledges of transparency and accountability, especially with so much of the nation's faltering economic fortunes now resting on state spending plans.

"If the government does not have a reasonable way of explaining and doing things, then the lack of trust and dissatisfaction in society will build up," Yan said. "And if the buildup continues, there could be an explosion."

Academics have called for greater transparency in government, but such a pointed demand from a top-flight corporate lawyer is extremely rare. The challenge by Yan may be another symptom of rising public rancor as the economy slows and unemployment increases.

Already, laid-off workers have staged a series of protests outside shuttered firms, dissidents have launched a "Charter 08" petition campaign calling for democratic reforms and officials have warned of the risk of spreading unrest.

Yan's submission to the Finance Ministry was a typed, four-page document that laid out his demands and his reasoning, drawing on well-worn phrases from Chinese leaders' speeches.

"Our government must exercise its power in the open sunlight," he wrote. "As our President Hu Jintao has expressed, the government must be extremely clean in serving the people."

In a second application, Yan also requested that the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planning body, open to public scrutiny its management of the 4 trillion yuan, or $585.5 billion, economic stimulus package recently unveiled by Beijing.

His challenges will test landmark access-to-information rules that came into effect last year.

The regulations, the first of their kind in China, require that governments disclose information about issues affecting the public interest in a bid to combat rampant corruption and discourage cover-ups enabled by often secretive decision-making.

Yan said the ministry accepted his application without objection and that it was bound by law to reply within 15 days.

If his application fails, he said he may file a lawsuit against the ministry, something that no one has ever attempted.

Yan conceded that his challenges stood little chance of immediate success but said that attracting public attention through Chinese media was also an important objective.

"People will ask themselves, should this information be open or not? When public consciousness reaches a certain level, the government will take notice," he said.

Yan first caused a stir in 1998 when he tried to sue a state-owned television maker in Sichuan.

As the legal environment evolved to give more protection to shareholders, he won a string of cases against firms that had falsified financial information.

Media exposure from his courtroom battles sparked accusations of attention-seeking and profiteering, which he has steadfastly denied. His law firm earned more than 10 million yuan in Shanghai in 2007, placing him in the elite rank of independent lawyers in China.