Transparency refers to an environment in which policy and processes are open and predictable, and where decisions and information are provided to the public in a comprehensible, accessible, and timely manner. Freedom of information is an integral part of the human right to freedom of expression. Government transparency should be the norm and exceptions limited to issues such as national security, public safety, criminal investigations, privacy, and commercial confidentiality.
The Chinese leadership sees transparency as important to promote state legitimacy. But it treats it as a matter of discipline and top-down supervision, rather than as a question of press freedom and citizen participation. The right to “open government information” (政府信息公开) is recognised in law, but may not infringe upon the interests of the Party State. National security is frequently invoked in order to protect “state secrets”. Compared to international standards and practice, China’s definition of state secrets is overly broad and includes information that would “affect social stability” or “have an unfavourable influence” on China’s foreign affairs. Information may be retroactively defined as “state secrets”, and the maximum penalty for divulgence of state secrets is death.
Greater access to government information was part of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening up launched in 1978. The constitutional right of Chinese citizens to supervise government was recognised and the concept of Open Village Affairs (村务公开) was introduced, in order to deal with local corruption. The political reforms championed by the Party in the 1980s came to a brutal halt with the suppression of the student protests in 1989, but the idea of “open government affairs” (政务公开) continued to gain prominence. Combatting corruption and building a “clean government” was seen as vital for the survival of the Party.
The lack of government transparency came to the fore again in a series of disaster cover-ups in the 1990s and early 2000s. From the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Henan in the mid-1990s, to the SARS outbreak in 2002, the Songhua River chemical spill in 2004, and the melamine contaminated milk scandal in 2008, the political culture of secrecy and the lack of a free flow of information had devastating impacts on people’s health and livelihoods, and lead to a public call for openness. The Chinese internet also acted as an important watchdog at this time, with investigative journalists exposing corruption and power abuse. Transparency was endorsed at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, as the necessary “sunshine” against corruption.
In 2008, the first national regulation on Open Government Information (OGI) was introduced, providing enhanced access to government information for issues such as government budgets and expenditures; environmental pollution; food and drug safety; land takings and compensation; procurement and construction contracts; as well as greater transparency concerning the legislative process and court information. Domestic NGOs and lawyers used the new OGI regulation to bring public interest litigation and to support advocacy on environmental pollution, discrimination, and other issues.
The effectiveness of the regulations was however always limited by the systemic lack of rule of law, media freedom and civil society oversight. To the Party, transparency means top-down supervision and control, and does not imply citizen supervision and public oversight. The major concern is with government efficiency and not with government accountability. The role of the media is to transmit government messages and to perform a limited monitoring function exposing local corruption at the behest of the central leadership. In Xi Jinping’s era, investigate journalism has been curtailed and, in a reversal of previous trends, the government now actively limits access to government data online to prevent unwanted insights.
While the Party chases “tigers”, “flies” and “foxes” both home and abroad in the name of transparency and anti-corruption, its internal governance and working methods remain a black box of secrecy, disappearances, and extrajudicial measures. Xi Jinping has used his signature anti-corruption campaign to take out both corrupt officials and political rivals. However, according to Xi, the Party’s “courageous self-reform practice” and ability to “turn the blade inward and pluck out our own corrupt flesh” has provided a powerful answer to those who tout the Western system of democracy and separation of powers.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.