Rule of Law

Rule of law meets the Three Gorges dam

(January 27, 2010) Ren XingHui, a Beijing resident, has made headlines in the Chinese Internet press by using the country’s new disclosure law to request information about government funding of the Three Gorges dam.

Last October, Mr. Ren filed formal requests for bonds, loans, special electricity charges, among other sources of financing, from three key government departments in charge of the dam: the Ministry of Finance, the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee Executive Office under the State Council and the China Three Gorges Corporation.

The Three Gorges dam on China’s Yangtze is the world’s largest and most expensive dam, though the final cost is unknown because of state secrecy. Estimates of its cost vary between $32 billion and $88 billion. Corruption has plagued the project’s resettlement operation, which has flooded nearly 1.2 million people from their homes.

According to the law, Mr. Ren’s request for data on the dam’s cost is entirely by the book: Article one of the regulation, which came into force on May 1, 2008, states that its purpose is “to ensure that citizens, legal persons and other organizations obtain government information in accordance with the law, enhance transparency of the work of government, promote administration in accordance with the law, and bring into full play the role of government information in serving the people’s production and livelihood and their economic and social activities.”

Mr. Ren’s attempt to use the law to secure government spending records is pioneering. Government officials who fielded his initial requests last October seemed caught off guard, denied knowledge of such things, couldn’t find responsible officials (they were away on a business trip or occupied in meetings), cited internal procedures for prohibiting the submission of the requests and directed Mr. Ren to the Propaganda Office.

Now, having considered his initial request, the Ministry of Finance has rejected it on the grounds that the income and expenditure of the dam project was made available in 2008 and that Mr. Ren’s own production, domestic or research affairs are not affected by the expenditures, so he has no right to the data.

Mr. Ren disputes this and argues that he, like all Chinese electricity consumers, has been forced to contribute to the Three Gorges Construction Fund through a special charge in their electricity rates. On that basis, he says, he is entitled to see the financing and cost data.

On Monday, Ren XingHui filed his suit against the Ministry of Finance with Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, asking it to decree that the Ministry of Finance provide the data on the cost of the Three Gorges to him. The Court is now reviewing whether to accept the case.

Patricia Adams, Probe International, January 27, 2010

Further Reading:

A Damned Dam
Setbacks stall finish of China’s massive dam project
How Beijing accounts for the cost of the Three Gorges dam
The bills pile high for operators of Three Gorges
The Three Gorges tax revolt
Three Gorges Power Corp admits hydro dams too costly
Three Gorges dam faces 14.5-billion-dollar cost overrun

For more information:

Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information, translated by the Yale Law School

Opinions of the General Office of the State Council on Some Issues about Implementing the Regulation of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information
  [PDF]

Other Resources:

Department of Justice: Introduction and History of the the Freedom of Information Act
Department of Justice Freedom of Information Act Reference Guide
General Principles of Access to Information
Freedom of Information Act 2000: Responsibilities of public authorities

Article 19: The Public’s Right to Know

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