China has made significant advances in government transparency. But there are still too many circumstances in which it is reluctant to see important facts discussed in the public realm.
Earlier this month, a story in the United Kingdom's Financial Times attracted widespread publicity. The newspaper reported that Chinese officials had asked the World Bank to remove a statement from a forthcoming report that 750,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from pollution.
The newspaper also wrote that officials had asked the bank to delete maps showing the number of pollution-related casualties by region, on the grounds that such information "could cause misunderstanding".
In response, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry pointed out that the report was still in draft, and therefore it could not be said that the data had been dropped from the report. But the denial was not particularly convincing, leaving the impression that the newspaper's story was essentially correct.
If so, the attempt to omit key data appears to contradict efforts by the Chinese government to increase transparency, particularly since the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the rapid spread of which was partly attributed to an initial cover-up by the government.
Last month, for example, the People's Congress of China indicated its willingness to allow the media to report on public emergencies without official authorisation, by deleting the requirements in a draft law.
An announcement by the government earlier this year detailed that all levels of government are required to actively publicise information on issues of public interest (see New rules ensure government transparency in China).
And a regulation introduced in 2004 requires medical institutions to release information about epidemics, and tightens sanctions on anyone withholding such information (see New rules require open reporting of epidemics in China).
The beginnings of change
Such laws are beginning to make an impact. Chinese institutions, for example, have been speeding up the public release of data on H5N1 bird flu, foot and mouth disease and large-scale transmission of meningitis.
None of the information released has caused public panic and indeed, in many cases, it has helped the public plan for potential epidemics and other emergencies.
But the continuing gap between the government's commitment to transparency, and frequent reports of efforts to hide or distort information, is striking. The explanation for this lies in the fact that decisions to release such information still remain in the hands of senior officials.
When such officials agree to the release of information, this is transmitted widely, and usually effectively. The handling of the SARS outbreak showed how the dissemination of key information can stimulate social mobilisation rather than panic in the face of a threatened epidemic.
But in other circumstances, the judgment of top officials can still prevent the timely dissemination of information.
This is what appears to have happened in the situation described by the Financial Times, where top officials from the State Environmental Protection Administration, concerned that information about pollution victims could be "misunderstood" by the public, insisted on controlling what could be released.
A similar situation was reported by the Guangzhou-based newspaper The 21st Century Business Herald on Thursday (19 July). The National Bureau of Statistics of China announced that data from a system to evaluate the losses caused by environmental pollution to the economy — popularly called Green GDP (gross domestic product) — will not be published due to 'technical reasons'. However, the newspaper indicated that the National Bureau will report the same data to top policymakers to use as a reference for their decision-making.
Such a top-down approach has several flaws. First, it places responsibility for judging how information will benefit the public in the hands of top officials, who may not always be best placed to make this judgement.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, information at different levels of governments can be unbalanced. Local governments tend to be better informed about what is happening in their regions than the central government, and this can make it easier for local officials to hide information.
Third, a bureaucratic system always provides excuses for delays in releasing information, or even for preventing such a release. Furthermore, lower level officials can always dodge responsibility for actions taken by those higher up in the system.
There is no simple solution. But several strategies could be more widely adopted. One would be to admit that the public has enough wisdom to judge what information is relevant to them, and to know what action to take to protect themselves.
A second would be to delegate the authority to release information to regional agencies. This should be the responsibility of the government bureau or public health institution that has jurisdiction over the people potentially impacted.
In the case of a new epidemic, for example, it should not be necessary to report it first to the central government health agency. The information should be made public by the provincial or municipal agencies in the region where the epidemic appears.
Third, a government agency's effectiveness in releasing information should be judged by the people most affected by it, not by a higher level of government. Citizens or organisations that suffer as a result of lack of information might, for example, be allowed to sue government agencies.
Finally, the media should be allowed to publicise information that it obtains. Action should only be taken where wrong information is deliberately disseminated and stands uncorrected — but not in situations where such information is accurate, and the media's 'crime' is to disseminate it.