Apr 23, 2019 05:02 PM

Editorial: To Improve China’s Business Environment, Access to Government Information Must Be Widened

Government information disclosure could soon take center stage in China again. On April 15, the revised Regulations on Government Information Disclosure were released. This is the first amendment since the regulations were implemented in May 2008. The regulations stipulate that government information disclosure should adhere to the principle of “openness as the norm and non-disclosure as an exception.” Although this is slightly different from the previous wording of “openness as the principle and non-disclosure as an exception,” it still shows that the central government continues to clearly promote information disclosure. The revision of the regulations will sum up in law the practices of the past decade. It is also a new launch pad for China’s transformation into an “open society.”

As a key element of transparent governance, the government information disclosure mechanism aims to protect the rights of different market entities to legally obtain government information. Improving the transparency of government work is an unavoidable requirement for building a government under the rule of law. Government information can be an important reference for people's decisions and expectations for economic and social activities. Further expanding access to this public resource is a fundamental way for the government to serve the market economy, and is also an important lever for improving the business environment.

After many years of putting information disclosure into practice, governments at all levels have made significant progress in terms of concept and action. In 2018, the international rankings for China’s business environment improved significantly, mainly due to increased transparency. The government currently has absolute initiative when it comes to improving the business environment, and the breadth and depth of information disclosure will directly determine the level of improvement. At present, improvement in the business environment is already a major driving force for China's economic transformation. Information transparency is also a crucial part of responding to the complex external environment and adapting to the challenges of economic globalization.

Expanding the scope of government information disclosure is the main thrust of this amendment. The Ministry of Justice has acknowledged that, in the process of implementing the original regulations, “some administrative agencies have had the problems of publicly available content that is not comprehensive and accurate, and levels of disclosure that are not deep enough to meet the needs of the public.” The revised regulations not only explicitly propose to gradually increase the content of government information disclosure, but also do away with the controversial “three requirements.” The “three requirements” refer to the current requirements that people can only apply for information that hasn’t been actively disclosed by government organs if the information meets the “particular needs” of the applicant’s production, life, or research. On the other hand, in response to problems such as repeated applications for information, the regulations stipulate that administrative organs may request an explanation if the number and frequency of applications clearly exceed a reasonable range, and that an information processing fee can be charged if a reasonable range is exceeded. This is a reasonable provision, but it should more clearly define what it means to “clearly exceed a reasonable range,” in order to prevent the rule from being superseded by government discretion. Even if an application for information “clearly exceeds a reasonable range,” if it meets the real needs of market participants, it should not be denied solely for the reason that it has been repeated multiple times. Otherwise, the government would be going against the original intention of the information disclosure system.

Since the government is still deeply involved in the market, policy transparency is an important element of regional market competitiveness. The investment confidence of market entities is largely dependent on transparency. In localities with good government information disclosure, there tends to be economic prosperity and the people tend to be comfortable. Wherever “non-openness is the principle, and openness the exception,” the economy tends to decline and public morale tends to be low. If a local government fails to recognize this and continues to practice “closed door administration” while seeing information disclosure as a burden and justifying its actions with the catch-all excuse of “social stability,” it will inevitably fall short in regional competition.

Government information disclosure in key areas needs continued effort. In recent years, a series of government documents have shown that government information disclosure in key areas is progressing in an orderly manner. Financial projections, public resource allocation, and major infrastructure projects are key types of information that are closely related to business. If there is even a small area in which there isn’t enough openness, or where information disclosure is delayed, there can be major negative consequences for businesses’ decision-making and operations.

Take public resource allocation, for instance. The construction of affordable housing projects, the allocation of affordable housing, the transfer of state-owned land and mining rights, government procurement, state-owned property rights transactions, and bidding for engineering construction projects, are all core components of the business environment. At the moment, it is especially necessary to move from words on paper to action, and place more emphasis on quality, detail and effectiveness. There should also be performance assessments and incentive mechanisms for the disclosure of information everywhere.

The flipside of strengthening information disclosure is the prevention of “information arbitrage.” Unauthorized passing on of internal documents and other such actions not only damage the local business environment, but also diminish the government’s credibility and draw suspicion of corruption. Such cases are not infrequent, and are direct tests of the quality of information disclosure mechanisms.

At the same time, there must be a greater emphasis on raising government information disclosure standards from an international viewpoint. International trade is extremely dependent on the release and circulation of information. Transparency is an important principle of the WTO and other trade organizations, and is seen as a core element of fair competition. Openness is a precondition of fairness. Raising transparency will directly address the steady growth of protectionism and unfair competition. After the signing of the Sino-U.S. trade negotiation agreement, as part of the bilateral mechanism, policy transparency will become a primary factor for decisions on controversial policies or initiatives. The second Belt and Road Forum will be held soon. Some within the international community still have doubts about the Belt and Road Initiative. Increased transparency in the form of information disclosure will be the Chinese government’s best response to dissenting voices. Transparency cannot be overemphasized when it comes to the process of further expanding China’s opening-up.

It is of utmost importance that the revised regulations be implemented well. Government information disclosure must continue to be promoted in depth and breadth in the future. Over the years, National People’s Congress representatives and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have called for information disclosure to be placed higher up in China’s legal hierarchy, and have proposed the enactment of a Law on the Openness of Government Affairs. Legislative conditions are becoming more favorable and work on the law should begin as soon as possible. Government information disclosure is a relay race. The enthusiasm inspired by the enactment of the Regulations on Government Information Disclosure in 2008 must not be forgotten. The implementation of revised regulations by the current government will also been seen as an important moment in history.

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