CMP reported last week on an administrative lawsuit brought by Liberation Daily reporter Ma Cheng against Shanghai’s City Planning Bureau for “nondisclosure of government information”. The Legal Daily reported the next day, June 8, that Mr. Ma had suddenly and unexpectedly withdrawn his case. “The plaintiff … suddenly withdrew his lawsuit, citing as a reason that [he had] ‘given up his application for an interview [with the planning bureau]’. Ma Cheng’s mobile phone was switched off, and even his colleagues had no way of reaching him”, the paper reported in a story picked up only by Fujian’s Strait News. We will continue to post information on the case and Ma’s reasons for withdrawal as they become available. For now, the only sign of life surrounding the case, which Southern Metropolis Daily hailed last week as a “historic” test of openness of information in China, was an editorial in today’s Legal Daily by Li Wujun (刘武俊), a legal scholar with the Ministry of Justice and assistant chief editor of Judicature of China magazine:

According to a June 8 report in Legal Daily, plaintiff Ma Cheng suddenly withdrew his lawsuit [against the Shanghai City Planning Bureau] … Still, I don’t believe we are finished with the issue of government disclosure of information, which was raised by this case.

This reporter’s lawsuit against Shanghai’s City Planning Bureau for “government non-disclosure of information” reveals first of all the awakening of ordinary citizens to government affairs and a growing appeal to their right to know. In a very true sense, public administration according to law (依法行政) means employing rights to restrain power. There is an inverse relationship between citizen’s rights and government power, and the abuse of administrative power often goes hand in hand with a weak sense of citizen’s rights. Experience has shown us that once citizens fully exercise their legal rights, they can be an inestimable force in checking government power. For citizens and other organizations standing on the opposite side from government bureaucracy, administration according to law goes hand in hand with using the law to protect one’s rights. Let’s take government disclosure of information as an example. For a long time, files, documents, regulations and other forms of government information were closed or semi-closed, and were generally not made available to ordinary people. This convention of government non-disclosure is linked, in fact, to a lack of public awareness about government affairs. It can be said that government non-disclosure and the mysterious rules of government secrecy [in China] have been fostered and helped along by a persistent popular mindset that holds that government secrecy is an unalterable principle. Today, as we talk about administration according to law, breaking through the mysterious rules of government secrecy demands government offices act with the law in mind. It requires also that the people become conscious of government affairs as quickly as possible, acting on their right to know.

There is a clear “asymmetry of information” between the government and the citizenry [in China]. The government has a wealth of public information on the national economy and other issues relevant to the popular livelihood, but the citizens themselves find this information impossible to obtain. This “asymmetry of information” means it is imperative the government put disclosure into practice.

When we talk about openness of government affairs, we have to mean also that government information should be disclosed [to the public]. This requirement is implicit in the very idea of administration according to law. Generally speaking, aside from [matters] touching on state secrecy, commercial secrecy or personal privacy, government information should in principle by open to the whole society. Disclosure of information is a task and responsibility administrative organs should bear themselves. Shanghai was first among provincial-level governments in China to set down rules on disclosure. According to “Shanghai Municipal Government Ordinance on Openness of Information”, all government information about the administration of society, the economy and public services should be make public, excepting information belonging to one of six categories of state secrecy. Citizens, legal persons and other organizations may request such information, demanding government offices make it available. Information not to be disclosed includes that which is classified as state secrets; commercial secrets or cases where disclosure might results in the leaking of commercial secrets; personal privacy or cases where disclosure might cause undue harm to a person’s privacy; cases under investigation, or being discussed or otherwise handled; cases involving execution of the law where disclosure might affect the exercise of law or endanger personal safety; other cases where laws or regulations prevent disclosure. I understand that a national “Ordinance on Government Information Release” is now being framed and has made it into this year’s legislative calendar of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

In an important sense “nondisclosure of government information” is about specific instances of nonfeasance on the part of government offices. The most effective way of dealing with such nonfeasance is, like this courageous reporter [in Shanghai], to take up the weapon of administrative procedure law, saying ‘No’ to this form of administrative nonfeasance by suing the government as citizens and making government offices with no reason not to disclose information accept the examination and sanction of the law.

The problem of government non-disclosure cannot be solved once and for all simply by enacting laws. We have to exercise the power of the law to ensure information is disclosed. We have to exercise the law to protect the just and legal right of citizens to be informed about the affairs of government. I hope this case in Shanghai of a reporter suing the city planning office for “nondisclosure of government information” will serve as a judicial reference promoting government disclosure of information.

[Posted by David Bandurski, June 12, 2006, 5:30]