Three Gorges Probe

An interview with the man who sued China’s Ministry of Finance to safeguard Chinese citizens’ right to know

(February 12, 2010) Background: “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information” [The regulation was passed by the executive meeting of the State Council on January 17, 2007 and it took effect on May 1, 2008.] has been released for almost three years in China, but there is much debate over its implementation. A law graduate recently had his request for access to information about the Three Gorges dam project under the law rejected. So he has sued the Ministry of Finance, the government body that refused his application.

In the early 1990s, the Ministry of Finance, together with other government departments, ordered that an additional charge of 0.003 RMB per kilowatt-hour be collected from all national electric power users, except in places like Tibet. That charge, which went into the Three Gorges Construction Fund, was later increased to 0.004 nationwide and then to 0.007 RMB per kilowatt-hour in economically developed areas. In 2009, the Ministry disclosed the income and expenditure of the dam project in the year of 2008 but the data of other years has yet to be made public.

Since September 2009, Ren Xinghui has been attempting to get the information on the Three Gorges dam project from the Ministry of Finance. After two unsuccessful attempts, he was angry and decided to file a lawsuit against the Ministry on January 26. His reason for pursuing this legal recourse is simple: he is a citizen who has contributed to the Three Gorges Construction Fund. In 2008, he passed the National Judicial Examination.

The following is a conversation with Ren Xinghui.

The story was originally publised at

Reporter: Did you act on impulse or did you carefully think through your decision to sue the Ministry of Finance?

Ren Xinghui: I have to say I took the action after careful consideration. In fact, many people have been involved, helping me to plan my request and giving me ideas and suggestions. Indeed, I began last March and April to work on my procedure to ask the Ministry of Finance to disclose the costs of the Three Gorges Dam.

Reporter: Why are you so concerned about the Three Gorges dam project? Does the project have any connection to your work?

Ren Xinghui: I have been working on a website “Three Gorges Probe: Study of China’s Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze” in which we try to inform people about how the project was built, including different views and opinions on the project, both positive and negative, as well as expenses and so forth. While doing my web work, I discovered that all of us are paying for the construction of the Three Gorges dam, because we have to pay an additional charge that is included in our electricity bills. That extra money is going to the Three Gorges Construction Fund. But, few people are aware of this and nobody knows how the money has been spent. However, according to “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information,” I think I, as a citizen, have a right and am entitled to ask the Ministry of Finance for the disclosure of this information.

Reporter: From your knowledge, how much money has been collected from our citizens, nationwide, from this fee for the Three Gorges Construction Fund?

Ren Xinghui: As the 2008 statistics — which were released [Released by the Ministry of Finance in 2009 — the only year for which data has been released.] — showed , the income was 20.259 billion yuan and expenditure 20.456 billion yuan. The budget in 2009 expected to see an income of 16.0 billion and expenditure of 19.815 billion yuan. That is to say, even if 2007 is not included, at least 100 billion yuan has been collected in total through the Three Gorges Project Construction Fund so far [The TGP Corporation announced that by the end of 2006, it had collected about 72.743 billion yuan through the Three Gorges Construction Fund. Leaving out the revenue collected by the Three Gorges Construction Fund in 2007 because it isn’t available, but adding in the 20.259 billion yuan collected in 2008, we see that at least 100 billion yuan has been collected by the Three Gorges Construction Fund and paid to build the Three Gorges dam.].  As of the end of August 2009, a total 151.468 billion yuan has been spent on construction of the dam project, and according to the dam-builder, the final budget will be under 180 billion yuan. It becomes clear that the money from Three Gorges Project Construction Fund accounts for more than half the total budget: it therefore becomes obvious that the contribution of the Three Gorges Project Construction Fund is huge.

Reporter: What experience did you have submitting your application for the information to the Ministry of Finance?

Ren Xinghui: I submitted an application to the Ministry of Finance on October 12 (2009) for the purpose of doing scientific research. I spoke to the office in charge of information disclosure [the office within the Ministry of Finance that deals with information disclosure], but they said that they were having a meeting and suggested that I put the material concerned in the janitor’s room. But the janitor said that he could not accept the material. So, I asked the office in charge of information disclosure if they could send a staff member to take the material, because I wanted to have a signed receipt for my request [As a record to prove that he had submitted a request for information.].  Finally the office sent a person to the room where I was waiting [The room in which Ren Xinghui waited was the janitor’s room. He waited for more than an hour. Eventually, an official arrived, took his information disclosure request, and gave Ren a receipt with the seal of the Ministry.].  On October 29 (2009), the Ministry of Finance called me to ask for my research plan, but I refused to give one because this is not a requirement of the “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information.” Later they faxed me a notice, saying that they would give me a reply a little later. However, they rejected my application on November 16.

Reporter: For what reasons did the Ministry of Finance reject your request?

Ren Xinghui: I was told that the information did not directly affect my own production, domestic, or research activities, which is based on Article 14 of the “State Council’s Suggestions on the implementation of ‘The Regulations on Government Information Disclosure’” But I checked and noted that Article 14 states that the information doesn’t need to be released if it doesn’t affect one’s own production, domestic, or research activities. But in its statement to me, the Ministry of Finance said if it “doesn’t directly affect….”. So, by adding the word “directly,” the Ministry’s stated reason is substantially different from Article 14.

Reporter: Perhaps most people in China feel the issue is not their business?

Ren Xinghui: I majored in law at university, and have been studying the regulations on information disclosure. And I have noticed that the Ministry of Finance has also been shouting slogans about the benefits of “shining sunlight on finances” and “information disclosure” and so forth. So I just want to know how the regulations have been carried out, to what extent the information is being disclosed, and how the Ministry of Finance deals with citizens’ requests for information? In the case of the Three Gorges dam project, almost all of us have made contributions to the Three Gorges Construction Fund, so we have the right to ask the government to disclose this financial information. The dam is a public project and we all are using the electricity, so how much money has been spent and how the dam’s construction is going, is closely related to everyone’s lives. How can the Ministry say it does not directly affect my life?

Reporter: What prompted you to bring a lawsuit against the Ministry of Finance?

Ren Xinghui: After my initial application was rejected, I submitted an application for an administrative reconsideration within the statutory period of two months. But the Ministry still didn’t accept my application. So, under the circumstance, I had no choice but to take legal action to ensure my rights were protected.

Reporter: What goals do you expect to achieve by filing this lawsuit?

Ren Xinghui: What I want is for the court to make a decision to ask the Ministry of Finance to correct its wrong administrative decisions, and to release the financial information on the Three Gorges dam project. So far, only the 2008 data has been made public. We have the right to more information about other years, from 1992 to the present, for instance.

Reporter: Of course, some people may think you are grandstanding, in order to become well known. What do you think of this?

Ren Xinghui: (Laughs). I have never thought of that, does being famous do me any good? I am doing this just because I am a person interested in learning about the law, and I am particularly concerned about civil rights and things like that. Besides that, I have a personal interest in the use of public funds, and I am particularly concerned about information disclosure. I feel I am doing a small thing, but that it is something I should do. If every citizen fulfills his or her own small obligations, then together we will make society much better.

Reporter: What are your plans next? Do you have any confidence in the court (to accept the case)?

Ren Xinghui: I have to wait, though there should be a result by the end of this month when the court is expected to make a decision. Regarding my confidence in the outcome, to tell you the truth, I haven’t had much confidence from the beginning, and I just wanted people to know about this case. In these past two days, however, I have started to think about preparing an appeal. I will submit my appeal if the Intermediate People’s Court doesn’t take up the case.

Hao Jinsong [A young law scholar, well-known for his legal actions against government departments] commented in his blog on Ren Xinghui’s case: “Because of citizens like Ren Xinghui, we see hope for this country.” Hao Jinsong is no bystander though, but also a participant in the event. Mr. Hao has been working behind the scene as a teacher, advising Ren Xinghui on how to carry out the legal proceedings because of Ren’s lack of litigation experience. Hao Jinsong was also interviewed on the issue:

Reporter to Hao Jinsong:
What do you think of Ren Xinghui’s lawsuit against the Ministry of Finance?

Hao Jinsong: I think it is very good. Collecting additional funds from citizens’ electricity bills through the Three Gorges Construction Fund actually violates “The Property Law.” According to “The Property Law,” charging a tax or collecting a fee on any non-state-owned assets [The Three Gorges Corporation is a state owned enterprise. It recently sold the turbines and generators of the Three Gorges dam project to its subsidiary, the Yangtze Power Corporation, which is both publicly and privately owned. The Yangtze Power Corporation now owns all the turbines at the Three Gorges dam, among other hydroelectric assets on the Yangtze.]  requires that the tax go through a legal procedure. But the additional charge to power users nationwide on behalf of the “Three Gorges Dam Construction Fund” came about because of an order issued by the State Council: no legislation was passed by the National People’s Congress, making it hardly a real legal procedure and therefore illegal. The original undertaking [That is, the creation of the Three Gorges Construction Fund] is illegal, and still the data, other than for the year 2008, has not yet been made publicly available, which is definitely unacceptable!

Reporter: Do you mean that we don’t have to pay it?

Hao Jinsong: It’s true that each citizen has not paid a huge sum, but over the long period of time that it has been collected it’s a huge amount of money, according to Ren’s calculation. Every household in this country uses electricity or buys electricity, but that consumer or business transaction doesn’t mean we all have a relationship with the Three Gorges Construction Fund. Moreover, many people have opposed the building of the Three Gorges Dam from the very beginning, myself included. Why, if we are not in favour of the project, should we have to make contributions to the construction of the dam?

Reporter: What is your opinion about the reply by the Ministry of Finance to Mr. Ren?

Hao Jinsong: The Ministry of Finance is not a legislative body and has no right to make a judicial interpretation. On the contrary, to protect citizens’ right to know and, in an effort to get the “Regulations on Information Disclosure” fully implemented, the Supreme Court issued a judicial interpretation. As Ren Xinghui has pointed out, the Ministry of Finance added the word “directly” in its reply, which is ambiguous and not precise. Obviously, the Ministry of Finance failed to use the wording properly. It’s true that the state wanted to do something good by issuing the “Regulations on Information Disclosure,” but some government departments have resisted its implementation. Under the current circumstances, I think it’s essential for Ren Xinghui to prepare for an appeal.

Shi Nian,, February 12, 2010

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