By David Bandurski – China’s national ordinance on openness of information, or xinxi gongkai tiaoli (信息公开条例), takes the stage just weeks from now. The document pledges to make government information available to the public in a whole range of areas — from public health and sanitation to education, utilities and urban planning. But what assurance do we have that this document will make any difference at all? None, save words and gestures.

As we’ve said time and again at CMP, the critical issue lurking behind the question of greater openness of information in China is political reform. Without real institutional change there is no way to guarantee officials do not suppress information they regard as unfavorable to their own interests.

We saw clear demonstration of this in Shanghai back in June 2006, when reporter Ma Cheng attempted to sue the local planning bureau for its refusal to provide information that fell under the city’s local openness of information ordinance. Ma was subsequently pressured to drop the lawsuit and quietly removed from his post at Liberation Daily. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Shanghai’s own laws on transparency.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of Xinhua News Agency coverage of the drafting of the national information openness ordinance back in December 2006 via ccaj.cn.]

As implementation of the national ordinance looms as a major question mark, we have an interesting bit of news this week from Henan Province, where leaders have pledged to protect the spirit of government transparency through the most effective means short of political reform and an unfettered press — and that is, another document.

According to a report in yesterday’s Beijing Times, Henan province (whose top leader, interestingly, is former SARFT head honcho and vice propaganda chief Xu Guangchun, who once criticized Southern Weekend for being too generous with information) announced in recent days that it has issued new regulations designed to push government compliance with information openness legislation (including the national ordinance).

According to what the official Xinhua News Agency called Henan’s “new system” for dealing with information release, government offices and public enterprises that do not carry out their obligations under openness legislation will receive official rebuke from supervision departments or the next-higher administrative organ, and severe cases will be referred for prosecution.

These “obligations” include regular updating of information available for release, creating guides and indexes for available documents — and of course, protecting information that does not qualify for public release.

Government agencies across China have reportedly been urged to prepare for the national ordinance, which will take effect on May 1, by creating guides and indexes for government information and relevant procedures and making these publicly available.

Like government offices across the country, those in Henan were ordered to have information guides prepared by the end of March 2008.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of government openness of information section “under construction” on the General Administration of Press and Publications’ website. Will this be up and ready by the end of this month, as mandated?]

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 6, 2008, 5pm HK]