Caixin
May 05, 2021 05:25 PM
CHINA

In Depth: Government Information Disclosure for the Pandemic Year

China’s government information disclosure system is intended to act as a guarantee that all citizens can obtain government information in accordance with the law.
China’s government information disclosure system is intended to act as a guarantee that all citizens can obtain government information in accordance with the law.

The government’s information disclosure system is intended to act as a guarantee that all citizens can obtain government information in accordance with the law. Annual reports offer a key glimpse into the system’s workings.

According to the Open Government Information Regulation that came into force in 2020, administrative organs at all levels must publish annual reports on the disclosure of government information prior to March 31 each year.

Thirty-one provincial-level administrative regions, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and most of the State Council’s constituent departments, special organizations directly under the State Council, other organizations directly under the State Council, and the working bodies and national bureaus managed by its ministries and commissions, have all recently released their 2020 reports on government information disclosure as scheduled.

Release of the 2020 reports began on Jan. 1. On Jan. 22, the Ministry of Finance was the first to release its 2020 report on its official website; it was followed by other State Council departments. Most published their annual reports for the previous year at the end of January. Most provincial-level governments released theirs at the end of March.

Standardizing the issuance of annual reports

The majority of ministries and commissions published their annual reports within the statutory period, showing an increase in attention to this requirement. The regulation stipulates that departments responsible for information disclosure should release reports according to a nationally unified format, increasing the reports’ levels of standardization and digitization. Prior to the revisions, releases were often late and core content was frequently omitted.

All the interviewed experts affirmed the annual report’s improving formalization and standardization. Professor Wang Xixin of Peking University Law School told Caixin that since a format had been specified for the reports, their unity has greatly improved.

However, most provinces’ reports focus on the government’s actively disclosed information, but stay silent about the content involved in applications for information disclosure or the main issues surrounding administrative reviews and proceedings, which are often simply replaced with tables of data. Wang warned against the annual report becoming a numbers game: “Necessary as numbers are, they cannot replace explanation and specification.”

He believes that replacing summaries, conclusions, and reflections simply with numbers runs contrary to the annual report’s main purpose. “The annual reporting system is mainly to provide the specific content and work related to government information disclosure,” Wang said. “Only by knowing the specific information disclosed by the government in the previous year can we realize supervision over the information disclosure work of government by the public.”

Developed and coastal provinces’ application fever

Statistics show the number of government information disclosure applications vary significantly among regions, with coastal and highly developed areas coming out on top. In the past three years, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces, as well as Beijing and Shanghai, have maintained a high volume of applications — each receiving more than 25,000 per year. Guangdong is the only one to break 40,000, with an average of 48,135 applications per year.

In 2020, Guangdong received 47,641 new applications, ranking first in the country, followed by Beijing and Jiangsu with 36,988 and 30,513 applications respectively.

GOV charts0504_1

In economically developed eastern regions, members of the public have a greater awareness of their rights and are more adept at dealing with the information disclosure system. Besides, coastal areas have a higher frequency of economic activity, which creates more chances for conflicts of interest, thus entailing higher requirements for law-based government administration, administrative reviews and litigation, according to Wang Jingbo, professor at the University of International Business and Economics and secretary-general of the China Administrative Law Society.

Land requisition information draws attention

In the 2020 annual reports, the vast majority of provincial-level governments (except Shandong, Zhejiang, Shaanxi and Guizhou provinces), failed to mention the content of information disclosure applications and the focus of administrative disputes. According to the annual reports of the four provinces that did mention these, we can see that information on land requisition and resettlement was one of the public’s biggest concerns and the likely trigger of administrative disputes.

According to Shandong’s report, government information disclosure applications were mainly related to compensation for land requisition, housing demolition, the transformation of shantytowns, social security, complaints and proposals; Shaanxi’s report states there was a large number of applications for the disclosure of land requisition information; Zhejiang’s report mentions that administrative disputes were mainly concentrated in land requisition and financial investment; Guizhou’s report likewise states that applications mainly focused on land requisition, project examination and approval and environmental protection.

In Shandong, applications related to land requisition, demolition and resettlement, and housing compensation account for more than half of the total and “can reach 70% to 80%,” said a staff member of the Government Affairs Openness Office under the General Office of the Shandong government. In Shanghai, a local official said that as housing prices are relatively high and thus the economic interests involved in relocation and demolition are quite large, citizens have great need of relevant government information once related disputes arise. In Beijing, a local official told Caixin that there are a relatively large number of applications concerning land requisition as well as relocation and compensation for relocation, and that “this probably has something to do with the increase in applications.” Finally, a Hubei government employee said that they have received a lot of applications related to land requisition information as well as social security.

According to Wang Xixin, urbanization construction — especially the requisition of land that goes along with construction and urban renewal projects — often results in a large number of information disclosure applications. Applicants mainly want access to information in order to conduct relevant litigation and safeguard their rights. For land requisition litigation, the litigants often apply for the disclosure of the information on compensation standards, the official document approving land requisition, minutes of meetings where decisions were made on land requisition and even documents approved by senior officials. Lawyers also use the disclosure of information as a means of investigation.

Significant increase in four departments’ applications

In 2020, the number of information disclosure applications received by the State Council system as a whole decreased compared with the previous year. Within that system, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Finance and the National Health Commission had significant drops in their number of applications received. Nine ministries or commissions saw an increase instead, with a particular rise in volume for the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Audit Office and the National Ethnic Affairs Commission.

GOV charts0504 _2

Notably, the number of applications received by the Ministry of Veterans Affairs has now risen for three years in a row. Information disclosure applications for the resettlement of veterans account for a relatively large portion of the total — about 10%, specifically, according to the Shandong government staff member. He explained that veterans’ resettlement involves a special population, and that the relevant policies vary by year, or even within a year. “Some veterans work in government departments after passing relevant examinations, some go to enterprises, and some find jobs on their own. For the last category, disputes will probably occur if jobs fall short of their expectations.”

Among the organizations directly under the State Council, the State Administration for Market Regulation and the National Government Offices Administration had the most applications.

Those of the National Healthcare Security Administration, the National Government Offices Administration, the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration and the State Taxation Administration increased from the previous year.

Those of the State Administration for Market Regulation, the General Administration of Sport, the Central Administration of Customs, the National Bureau of Statistics and the National Radio and Television Administration decreased from the previous year.

Most regional government disclosure rates below 50%

In 2020, the government information disclosure rates of 17 provincial-level administrative regions were less than 50%. The Ningxia Hui autonomous region was the only province-level region with a rate of less than 10%, at 8.7%; Tianjin ranked second at 35%; five of the top provinces for volume applications were also in the top 10 for low disclosure rates — Beijing (38.4%), Shanghai (39.5%), Jiangsu (39.9%), Zhejiang (44.3%) and Guangdong (44.6%).

Of all reasons for government information non-disclosure, “not providable” was the most common, followed by “not discloseable” and “not processable.”

The rates were even lower for State Council affiliated departments. They were less than 10% at those of seven ministries and commissions — the National Ethnic Affairs Commission (0%), the Ministry of Veterans Affairs (4%), the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (5.6%), the National Public Complaints and Proposals Administration (6.5%), the Ministry of Justice (6.6%), the Ministry of Public Security (7.8%) and the National Audit Office (9.3%).

Among the organizations directly under the State Council and the State Council departments, the National Healthcare Security Administration, the National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs had relatively satisfactory rates of 91.4%, 76.2% and 60.5%, respectively.

Why are disclosure rates generally low? The abovementioned Shanghai official informed Caixin that in the eastern metropolis, many submitted applications do not meet the requirements for government information disclosure; for example, some information that citizens requested for disclosure touched on nongovernmental areas managed by Communist Party committees, people’s congresses or procuratorates rather than administrative organizations, while other involved both the government and the party.

Besides these, he explained, a large number of applications should actually be categorized as complaints, proposals or reports. “These applications are actually complaints and proposals aimed at addressing certain problems rather than requests to disclose information.”

Contact editor Joshua Dummer (joshuadummer@caixin.com)

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