Three Gorges Probe

Opening the books: Chinese citizens calling for greater transparency

(March 16, 2010) Ren Xinghui’s recent decision to sue China’s Ministry of Finance over the Three Gorges levy—added to electricity bills in the 1990s to help pay for the massive infrastructure project—has raised a number of eyebrows. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ren’s campaign so far has been the lack of a response from government officials—marking what some commentators are calling a new move towards government transparency.

Only a few years ago, Ren’s push for information on the costs of the Three Gorges project would have landed him in hot water, reports Shai Oster, for the Wall Street Journal. Officials in the past, he says, have “traditionally guarded information…and controlled the media, resulting in few detailed accounts of its doings.”

But a new mood seems to be emerging, with open government becoming one of the themes at this year’s National People’s Congress—a ten-day legislative session involving nearly 3,000 delegates. Oster reports that one “senior lawmaker said on the session’s sidelines that legislators would start reviewing later this year an amendment to China’s budget law that would further enhance transparency.”

Ren’s quest to learn how money from the Three Gorges levy fund has been spent—using a two-year-old freedom of information regulation in order to do so—is part of a much larger push for government transparency. And as Ren and other activists progress in their efforts to utilize this regulation to their advantage, the extent of information officials are willing to divulge and what will likely remain a secret is becoming increasingly clear.

The freedom of information regulation was initially passed in May 2008 and is similar, but weaker, to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. While the regulation was initially praised for allowing citizens a better look at how government operates, activists have also pointed out its limitations, saying “the regulation is vague and full of exceptions,” writes Oster.

“Information relating to state statistics, budgets, building projects, food safety and the state of the environment are covered. But the government can withhold anything considered a state secret or sensitive commercial information, which could exempt a swath of activities the government does through state-owned enterprises.”

The government has since faced a number of hurdles in dealing with information requests—starting with the most basic problem of creating a request form.

In spite of the challenges, a number of citizens and activists have been eager to prod the government to open its books. Officials in Shanghai initially resisted requests to open to the public the city’s budget, but after a wave of bad press, said it would publish part of its finances later this year.

The prominent activist and artist Ai Weiwei—who helped design the bird’s nest stadium used for the 2008 Olympics—recently sued the Ministry of Civil Affairs for what he says was a lack of response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and for allegedly failing to provide information he had requested concerning its toll and cost.

Shen Kui, a Peking University law professor and specialist in constitutional law, seized on the regulation immediately after it became available in the hopes of discovering how tolls from an expressway to Beijing’s airport were being spent. The highway operator eventually declined his request, saying its budget is commercially sensitive.

But other activists have enjoyed better luck.

Wu Junliang, who recently returned to China after living in the United States for 20 years, and other volunteers, put in a request for budget information from a number of local and regional governments. Much to his surprise, the Shenzhen municipal government opened its books to review. And later, Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, also agreed to open its records. After the city’s budget was posted online, the public response was so immense, the website soon crashed.

“I’m trying to raise taxpayers’ consciousness by letting them see where their money is going,” Mr. Wu said. “Letting them know what their rights are—that’s democratic progress.”

Mr. Ren, however, is not optimistic the government will open its books in regards to the Three Gorges fund. The Three Gorges project has been considered a state secret since it was first approved in 1992—and has remained closed to external audits, even in the face of international criticism. The project has also been challenged on the basis of its true cost—which the government puts at $37-billion, including relocations. Activists, such as Dai Qing, place that figure way higher, saying it might be as much as $88 billion.

One government official, according to Shai Oster, says the ministry has already answered Ren’s request—pointing to figures for the dam’s 2008 construction budget, where income is listed as 20.26 billion yuan (about $3 billion at current rates) and spending, 20.456 billion yuan. But Ren wants data covering the full 10-year span of the levy’s existence—not just one year, which is why he sued the ministry in January. Ren already has an appeal if the courts refuse his request.

“I’m an electricity consumer, I paid this money,” he says. “I should know how they use it.”

Brady Yauch, Probe International, March 16, 2010

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