One of today’s major official news announcements in China, pinned to the top of most major web portals through the day, was a notice from top Party leaders urging governments at all levels to be more conscientious in advancing the goal of a more open government, particularly around “sudden-breaking events and problems of key concern to the people.”
It can be said that this document (an “Opinion”) is of little fresh importance from a policy standpoint. It is, in other words, purely a regurgitation of principles iterated in President Hu Jintao’s 2008 policy of “public opinion channeling,” or yulun yindao (舆论引导) — the idea that Chinese state media and governments should be proactive in reporting news, largely with the goal of directing stories in the government’s interest — and in the May 2008 National Ordinance on Open Government Information, or zhengfu xinxi gongkai tiaoli (政府信息公开条例), which places various open government information requirements on local governments and ministries of the State Council.
Well then, why mention the announcement at all? Because the timing is important.
This official notice (from Xinhua, mind you, not the “Opinion” itself) can be read as a direct response to the recent week of (from the leadership’s standpoint) chaos in China’s media over reporting on the July 23 train collision in Wenzhou, which claimed at least 40 lives and brought an outpouring of public anger toward the government. And in fact, the sustained media attack on China’s Ministry of Railways this month, which has happened since at least July 10, when the first malfunction was reported on the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Rail, might be read as the chief factor behind releasing the “Opinion” at this time, though it has been in the works for years.
The bottom line: the railway ministry, and local governments, did a horrific job of handling this public opinion crisis. And the answer to avoiding similar things happening in the future is to be more upfront about the decisions the government makes, the findings of its investigations, etcetera.
Of course, critics are right on the money in pointing out that this is just more official-speak on top of official-speak, and the critical question is how to implement these principles. The National Ordinance on Open Government Information has been in effect for more than three years, but clearly it did nothing to create real openness or accountability within the railway ministry — where the push to develop high-speed rail has been in high gear since around 2007, and a truly open look at the books would certainly have set off warning bells.
A web user in Anhui’s Chaohu City (巢湖市) wrote: “The Central Committee has already deployed so may like demands! The key is implementation. They have to truly go and manage things, and dare to go manage things.”
From Xiamen, another user wrote: “Every time it’s all this approximate stuff. What does it mean to correctly channel public opinion in society? What is correct and what is incorrect? Relevant [government] departments and local governments all believe that their way of doing things is correct. So, does this document from the Central Committee have any real use in offering guidance?”
“Central Party Demands Progress of Major Sudden-breaking Incidents Be Announced” (“中央要求公布重大突发事件进展 回应社会关切”)
Xinhua News Agency
August 3, 2011
In recent days, the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the General Office of the State Council printed and distributed [the notice] “Opinions Concerning the Deepening of Openness of Government Affairs and Strengthening Service in Government Affairs” (关于深化政务公开加强政务服务的意见), which raised the need to gain a strong grasp of openness [in the handling] of major sudden-breaking incidents and problems of key concern to the people, objectively announcing [publishing/releasing] the course of events, the measures taken by the government, public preventive measures (公众防范措施) and the results of investigation.
Quickly Responding to Social Concerns
The “Opinion” raised the need to renew the modes and methods of openness in government affairs, upholding [an atmosphere] conveniencing public knowledge of affairs and conducive to the principle of public monitoring [of policy and the government], expanding the scope of work, deepening content [subject to] openness [i.e., being open about a wider field of government information], enriching the forms of openness, promoting the improvement of the government itself and innovation of management . . .
Administrative organs at all levels must strictly follow the National Ordinance on Open Government Information (政府信息公开条例) [put into effect in May 2008], making available accurate government information actively and on a timely basis concerning prospective budgets and final accounts, the approval and implementation of major construction projects, social welfare projects and other such areas.
[We must] effectively grasp openness on sudden-breaking incidents and problems of key concern to the people, objectively announcing the course of events, the measures taken by the government, public preventive measures and the results of investigation.[We must] respond to social concerns in a timely manner, correctly channeling public opinion in society.