Three Gorges Probe

“What I asked for and why”: Ren Xinghui’s epic quest to track down the costs of the Three Gorges dam

(May 3, 2010) In the afternoon of October 12, 2009, Chinese citizen, taxpayer, electricity consumer, and law graduate, Ren Xinghui, using the law his government had enshrined to protect Chinese citizens’ rights to information about government expenditures, exercised his right: he went to the offices of the Ministry of Finance and submitted a formal and legal request for the monies raised and spent to build the world’s largest hydro dam, Three Gorges on China’s Yangtze River. Here he explains what he asked for, why, and what happened next.

1. THE REASON I SUBMITTED MY APPLICATION

Since the launch of the website to debate the Three Gorges dam, I have been very interested in all news about the Three Gorges project, and about its budget, in particular. Before that, I learned from Yangtze! Yangtze!, edited by Dai Qing, that the cost of the massive dam project was one of the primary concerns raised by its opponents in the 1980s. At that time, a group of experts were worried the Three Gorges project would become a “fishing project,” just as the Gezhouba dam had become, where the money spent building it was far more than originally budgeted.

I learned many things, including this. 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, to raise funds to build the Three Gorges dam project. 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. According to the statistics released by the Three Gorges Corporation in 2007, by the end of 2006, about 72.743 billion yuan ($10.6-billion) had been paid into the Three Gorges Construction Fund. But few people know how that money has been spent.

The Three Gorges project is one of the country’s major national construction projects. It also relies on the government’s financial support. Now that the project is nearing completion, it only seems natural that the authorities should release the project’s cost to the general public. According to “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information,” as an individual or a citizen, I believe I am able to apply to the government departments and institutions concerned for information about the Three Gorges project, its financial details, and its expenditures and income in particular.

2. PREPARATIONS FOR THE FORMAL APPLICATIONS

Because this is the first time I have ever submitted such an application, I consulted several scholars, lawyers and researchers, who have experience. I asked them what issues I should pay attention to and what problems I might face during the application process. Based on their ideas and suggestions, I decided to submit my applications to the Ministry of Finance, to the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee (TGPCC) of the State Council, and to the China Three Gorges Corporation.

On reviewing the official sites of the three bodies, I discovered that there is an application form and related information on the disclosure of governmental information already available on the website of Ministry of Finance. But there is no such information available on the websites of the TGPCC and the Three Gorges Corporation. So I called both for more information.

I got a telephone number for the TGPCC by checking the telephone directory operator. I called the reception first, but the person on duty suggested that I contact the propaganda department of the TGPCC. I did, and a staff member at the propaganda department told me the correct department should be the department that is in charge of the disclosure of government information, and gave me a fax number for that department.

When I called the Three Gorges Corporation, the telephone operator had no idea which department was responsible for the disclosure of government information. When I asked if I could have the telephone number for the department in charge of publicity, the operator simply refused, saying the company’s policy did not allow that. But as an alternative, the operator gave me a fax number for the department in charge of publicity.

3. SUBMITTING MY APPLICATIONS

After finishing my preparations at the end of September, I decided to submit my applications to the relevant departments as soon as possible after the long National Day holiday.

I went to the Ministry of Finance first. I got there shortly after 3 p.m., October 12, 2009, and called the office in charge of the disclosure of governmental information from the reception room. A clerk who answered my call told me they were having a meeting and no one had time to meet me. I said I could wait awhile—until the end of the meeting. But he said I didn’t need to wait because he had no idea when the meeting would end, and suggested that I leave the application in the reception room.

When I hung up the phone, the reception clerk told me he could not receive my application at all. So I called the office again, and asked them to send somebody to the reception room, take the application from me, and give me a receipt. He responded that they would love to send somebody to see me but that nobody was available at that moment. He also said they could not give me a receipt for my application because there was no precedent, and, he stressed, every application, no matter in what form, such as email, fax and so on, would be treated seriously.

I told the staff member that, according to the “Guidelines for the Disclosure of Government Information Regulations” issued by the Ministry of Finance, the application should be received by someone at this Ministry. In addition, I also said that the Ministry of Finance was also obliged to provide me with a receipt. I said, if nobody could come to take the application from me, or provide me with a receipt for it, I would go to the nearby post office and send the materials by express post to the Ministry. The Ministry of Finance staff member responded that there was no need to send my application by express mail as I was already there, so he would make arrangements to receive it and he would call me once everything was ready. I gave him my cell phone number and waited in the reception room of the Ministry of Finance.

Around 4:20 p.m., a clerk arrived in the reception room and received my application, which included a copy of the application form, my application for the disclosure of governmental information, and a photocopy of my official ID. The clerk gave me a receipt bearing the seal of the general office for the Ministry of the Finance and told me the officials in charge of information disclosure attached importance to the application, but nobody was free to meet me earlier. The Ministry of Finance fellow even offered me an apology for the delay.

Next, I submitted my application, with a copy of my ID, to the general office of the TGPCC by fax on the morning of October 13, 2009. I followed up by calling the reception room of the TGPCC to confirm they were in receipt of the material. But the clerk in the reception said he had no idea and instead gave me the phone number of the propaganda department within the TGPCC. I called the number but nobody answered. So I called the reception once again. Another clerk told me the official in charge of the disclosure of governmental information was on a business trip, so there was no way they could provide me with a receipt.

Finally, I called the Three Gorges Corporation on the same day that I faxed my application to the TGPCC. I asked for the phone number of, either the information centre, or the office in charge of news releases. But, rather than giving me the phone numbers, the operator gave me the fax numbers for the two offices. Thus, I faxed my application and my ID card to the Three Gorges Corporation shortly after 11 a.m. on October 13.

4. MY QUESTIONS

Questions Submitted to the Ministry of Finance

1) How much was the total income, expenses, and balance of the Three Gorges Construction Fund annually (until the end of October, 2009)? How much was the total income, expenses, and balance of the Fund until October 2009? How were the monies in the Fund spent each year?
2) How much was the additional electricity charge by province and by year up to the end of October, 2009?
3) How much was contributed by the Gezhouba Power Station each year, from 1984 to October, 2009?
4) What was the amount and use of each portion of the funds disbursed by the Ministry of Finance – apart from the Three Gorges Construction Fund – until October, 2009?
5) By October 2009, what was the total amount disbursed by the Ministry of Finance for the construction of the Three Gorges project?

Questions Submitted to the Three Gorges Project Construction Committee (TGPCC)

1) By the end of October 2009, how much was spent, in total, building the Three Gorges project? Of that, how much was spent on dam construction, power transmission and resettlement respectively?
2) Since the official start of the Three Gorges project until the end of October 2009, how much money was raised for the project each year? What was the expenditure and balance of the funds raised for each year? What were the financial sources for the TG project each year, and how much was raised from each of these sources respectively?
3) By the end of October 2009, of all the funds raised from different sources to finance Three Gorges, what amount came from the Three Gorges Construction Fund? Of the revenue collected by the Three Gorges Construction Fund, how much came from the additional charge on electricity users nationwide each year? Of the revenue raised by the Three Gorges Construction Fund, how much came from the Gezhouba Power Station each year, from 1984 to the end of October, 2009?

Questions Submitted to the China Three Gorges Corporation

1) By the end of October 2009, how much in total was invested in the Three Gorges project?
2) By the end of October 2009, how much was spent on construction of the dam? Please list the amount and its uses for each year.
3) By the end of October 2009, how much was spent on power transmission? Please list the amount and its uses for each year.
4) By the end of October 2009, how much was spent on resettlement? Please list the amount and its uses for each year.
5) By the end of October 2009, what was the total amount your company received from the Three Gorges Construction Fund, and how much did your company receive from this Fund each year? Of the revenue your company received from the Three Gorges Construction Fund, how much of that came from the additional charge on electricity users nationwide each year? Of the revenue your company received from the Three Gorges Construction Fund, how much of that revenue came from the Gezhouba Power Station each year, from 1984 to the end of October, 2009?
6) How much electricity has been generated by the Three Gorges dam each year, and how much revenue has your company received from selling the electricity produced, up until the end of October 2009?
7) From which (national or state) development banks did your company receive loans? How much did you get from every bank, each year? By October 2009, how much has your company received from those banks in total? What have the interest charges on those loans been? How much of the bank loans have you repaid?
8) From which commercial banks did your company receive loans? How much did you get from each bank, for each year? By October 2009, how much in loans has your company received from those banks in total? What have the interest charges on those loans been? How much of the bank loans have you repaid?
9) How many times has your company issued corporate bonds? What were the amounts and interest rates for each of the corporate bonds you issued? What was the total amount of funds raised by issuing the bonds, and what is the total interest paid or owing as a result of issuing the bonds?
10) What foreign export credit and commercial loans has your company received? What were the amounts and interest rates for each of the foreign export credit and commercial loans? What was the total amount of the foreign export credit plus commercial loans, and what was the total amount of interest on the foreign export credit plus commercial loans?
11) How much money has your company raised through the joint-stock-system (or stock-holding-system) for the project?
12) As of October 2009, with the exception of the Three Gorges Construction Fund, did the Ministry of Finance allocate other funds to your company for the construction of the Three Gorges project? If so, how much (please list how many times, how much money and what the purposes were for each of the disbursements)?

5. RESPONSES

Responses from the Ministry of Finance

On the afternoon of October 20, 2009, the Ministry of Finance called me, inquiring about the purpose of my information request and the uses to which I would put the information. They also informed me that the data was being summarized.

On October 29, 2009, the Ministry of Finance called me to ask for my research plan because I had marked “scientific research” as the “use of the information required” in this column of the application form. But I declined to provide a plan because it is not required that I provide one according to “The Regulations on Government Information Disclosure.” The person who called me from the Ministry replied that it would be better if I could provide such a plan, but it was not a must, and told me in the meantime that they would give me an answer a little later.

In the afternoon of October 30, I phoned the office in charge of information disclosure affairs in the Ministry of Finance, asking if they could give me a formal written reply. The person who received my call said he would need to consult his superior. Later, I called again. The staff member replied that they could not provide a reply to me, because they had no precedent for doing so.

On the morning of November 16, the Ministry of Finance faxed me, “A notice on government information disclosure [2009 No. 39],” in which I was told that the income and expenses of the Three Gorges Construction Fund in 2008 was available on the website of the Ministry, and that no additional information I had requested would be provided. The notice read: “According to the application materials you submitted, the information you requested doesn’t directly affect your special needs for production, living or scientific research. Based on the Article 14 of “The State Council’s Suggestions on the Implementation of ‘The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information’”, no other information you asked for in your application would be provided by this department.”

Responses from the Office of the TGCC

On the morning of October 27, the Office of the Three Gorges Construction Committee (TGCC) called me, informing me that they were preparing a written response to my request. Two days later, the Office of the TGCC called me again, saying the response was ready. I asked them to fax it, but the Office failed to do so even though I called them four times. Finally I had to go to the Office myself to get it on the morning of October 30.

In its reply, the Comprehensive Department of the Office of the TGPCC provided me with the following data: “As of the end of September 2009, the Three Gorges dam project spent a dynamic investment totaling 79.952 billion yuan, of which 35.263 billion yuan was spent on power transmission, and 71.129 billion yuan on resettlement. However, according to the estimates set in May 1993, a static investment of 125.816 billion yuan would be spent on the construction of the Three Gorges dam project. This was within the total budget approved by the state for Three Gorges – indeed, it amounted to 93.01% of the total budget approved. On the issue of funds raised for the project and for the Three Gorges Construction Fund, the letter said: “The Office is not responsible for these two issues, and we recommend that you consult with the State Grid Corporation in the Ministry of Finance, and the China Three Gorges Corporation.”

Responses from China Three Gorges Group Corporation (formerly the Three Gorges Corporation)

On October 13, I faxed my application to the Three Gorges Group Corporation and later that day — at around 15:26 in the afternoon — I received a call from them. A lady there told me that the finance department in the corporation was too busy to compile the data for me. In addition, some of the information was too old and had already been put into the archives, and marked as confidential, making it hard to offer that information. Then she suggested I go to the Website of the Corporation. But I argued that the information posted on the site was very limited, and that I needed a formal reply indicating what they could provide, how I could get the data which had been made public already, and why I couldn’t get access to specific information. The staff member said that she had already given me her response and that she had never encountered such a situation before. Finally, she said she would pass my application material to the company’s department in charge of legal issues. I asked for the phone number for this department, but she said the number couldn’t be provided.

On the afternoon of November 2, I called the Three Gorges Corporation again, but I was told someone from the department in charge of legal issues would contact me. Later, a staff member from this department did contact me to say that the Three Gorges Corporation was not a public enterprise, so there was no way to provide me with the information that I requested. I asked if the department could give me a written reply indicating the reasons why they (the Three Gorges Corporation) couldn’t provide me with the information I was asking for. The staff member said that this would be okay, so the following morning I received a written reply signed by the staff member on behalf of the Office of Legal Affairs for the China Yangtze Three Gorges Corporation. The written reply said: “We believe that the China Yangtze Three Gorges Corporation is not a government administrative unit, or a public enterprise or institution, and is therefore not subject to “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information,” so there is no obligation to provide such information to you.”

6. CONCLUSIONS

With respect to government accountability and the protection of taxpayers’ rights, the disclosure of public revenue and expenditure is a subject of growing importance in China.

As Jia Kang, director of the Institute for Finance of the Ministry of Finance, said when he was interviewed by the China Economic Times (Zhongguo jingji shibao), “Reforms in China’s financial sector should be in the direction of greater transparency.” As Article 1 of “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information” states, “This Regulation is formulated for the purpose of safeguarding legal access to government information by citizens, legal persons and other organizations, improving the transparency of government work, promoting administration in accordance with the law, and giving full play to the role of government information to serve the people’s production, living and social and economic activities.”[fn]See this translation of Article 1 from The China Law Center, Yale Law School:  Article 1. In order 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, these Regulations are hereby formulated.[/fn]  So it is clear that the government is trying to push for greater disclosure in administrative affairs and protection of the public’s right to know.

My experience applying for disclosure of information provides a sense of how the ideas and intent of the regulations are being carried out. But, I’d like to talk more about the Ministry of Finance.

When we look at the information provided by the Ministry of Finance on their website, we can see that the Ministry has made considerable progress in the area of disclosure of government information. It should be noted that my expectations for gaining access to the relevant information were not high. And the excuse given for non-disclosure made me feel as if I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As the Ministry said: “According to the materials you submitted in your application, the information you requested does not directly affect your special needs for production, living or scientific research.”

However, Article 13 of ‘The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information” states, “….citizens, legal persons or other organizations may, in light of their special needs for production, living or scientific research, apply to the departments under the State Council, the local people’s governments at various levels and the departments of the local people’s government at or above the county level for accessing the relevant government information.”

The second paragraph of Article 20 of the Regulations states that, to apply for the disclosure of government information, “An application for government information disclosure shall include the following contents: (1) Name and contact information of the applicant; (2) Description on the content of the government information applied to be disclosed; (3) Requirement on the form of the government information applied to be disclosed.”

Article 21 of the Regulations says, “With regard to the government information applied to be disclosed, an administrative organ shall give different replies in light of the following circumstances: (1) In case it is government information that shall be disclosed, notifying the applicant of the means and channels for accessing such government information; (2) In case it is government information that shall not be disclosed, notifying the applicant of the fact and giving reasons; (3) In case it shall not be disclosed by this administrative organ as prescribed by law or such government information does not exist, notifying the applicant of the fact, and if it is possible to determine the administrative organ entitled to disclose such information, notifying the applicant of the name and contact information of such administrative organ; (4) In case the applied content is ambiguous, notifying the applicant to correct or supplement it.”

With regard to non-public government information, the fourth paragraph of Article 14 of the Regulations states, “No administrative organ may disclose any government information involving state secrets, commercial secrets or individual privacy.” And Article 8 says, “No administrative organ may endanger national security, public security, economic security or social stability when disclosing government information.”

Article 14 of the “Guide of the Ministry of Finance on Disclosure of Government Information Regulations,” states that while applying for the disclosure of information, the applicant should provide the following information: “(1) A natural person’s name, ID number, contact information, address, legal person or organization’s name, address, contact information, legal representative or the name of the person in charge of the organization; (2) A concise and accurate description of the content of the government information for which disclosure is being requested in the application; (3) The preferred form is which the information requested is to be provided.”

According to Article 17 of the Ministry of Finance Guide, “Within 15 working days since the date of registration, an administrative organ shall give a timely written reply in light of the following circumstances: (1) In case it is government information that does not require reorganization , notifying the applicant of the time, means and channels for accessing such government; (2) In case it is government information that shall be disclosed, notifying the applicant of the means and channels for accessing such government information; (3) In case it shall not be disclosed by this administrative organ, notifying the applicant of the fact and, if it is possible to determine the administrative organ that is entitled to disclose such information, notifying the applicant of the name and contact information of such administrative organ; (4) In case such government information does not exist, notifying the applicant directly.

In regards to dealing with the applications, the Guide of the Ministry of Finance states: “After receiving an application, this administrative organ will review elements of the application, to determine whether the application is complete or not based on ‘The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information.” If the elements are not complete, the administrative organ will issue a notice within one working day, notifying the applicant to modify and update the application.

I have listed the regulations above in detail in an effort to show that according to both ‘The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information” and the “Guide of the Ministry of Finance on Disclosure of Government Information Regulations,” the Ministry of Finance should have informed me to make changes or update my application. If the Ministry considered my application not clear or not complete, they should have told me to revise or amend my application by issuing a further notice.[fn] Eds: But the Ministry of Finance did not do so.[/fn]

Given that the information I asked for does not involve state secrets, commercial secrets, personal privacy, nor does it endanger national security, public safety, economic security and social stability, the Ministry of Finance should have disclosed the information concerned.

Article 14 of the State Council’s Suggestions states that “Government administrative offices will not provide the information to the applicant if there is no a connection to the applicant’s special needs associated with his/her production, living and scientific research.” But the question is: how can applicants figure out “if there is no connection between the applicant’s special needs associated with his/her production, living and scientific research”?

According to Article 1 of “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information,” disclosing government information, in general, is not only to meet the applicant’s specific needs, but the administration’s obligation to do so. To establish the rule of law, the government should earnestly safeguard the citizen’s rights to information, participation and public oversight.

It appears that with regard to determining “if there is no connection between the applicant’s special needs associated with his/her production, living and scientific research,” the Ministry of Finance can decide. I am wondering if much higher levels of scientific research – say at the provincial or even national research level, for instance — can satisfy the requirement that there must be a connection between the applicant’s special needs associated with his/her production, living and scientific research. But, what does this have to do with citizen’s rights to information, participation and supervision?

Based on “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information,” the government departments should voluntarily disclose: “Information concerning the vital interests of citizens, legal persons or other organizations” and “Information that should be widely known by the general public or concerns the participation of the general public.” The national budget and national accounts and information on the approval and implementation of key construction projects should be made public accordingly. The Three Gorges dam, which was approved by the National People’s Congress in 1992, is not only a major national construction project, but supported by the state financially. Moreover, the Three Gorges Project Construction Fund comes from additional charges on electricity consumers nationwide (with some areas excluded), which not only concerns the vital interests of citizens, but should be widely known by the general public. Why then did the Ministry of Finance reject my application by saying the information doesn’t directly affect my special needs for production, living or scientific research?

Unlike the Ministry of Finance, the TGPCC (Three Gorges Project Construction Committee) of the State Council offers little information on its official website, especially about information disclosure: they offer neither the procedures to guide an applicant to submit applications, nor any contact information. So I got the phone number not from their website, but from the municipal information office.

According to both “The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information” and “The State Council’s Suggestions on the Implementation of ‘The Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information’,” however, that information should be available on its website. Nevertheless, the TGPCC responded to my application, though not in a satisfactory way.

The Three Gorges Corporation (which has now changed its name to China Three Gorges Group Corporation) did not respond to my application properly when it claimed that it is not a public enterprise. But I considered their status differently before I submitted my application. I thought, the Three Gorges dam was one of China’s major national construction projects, it is funded financially by the central government, and it involves flood-control and improved navigation, which closely affects people’s lives. So I considered it a public enterprise. Therefore, I wanted to submit my application to them, but I was stymied.[fn]The Three Gorges Corporation insisted it is not a public enterprise and has no obligation to disclose the information requested.[/fn] Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that in its reply, the TGPCC (Three Gorges Project Construction Committee) of the State Council recommended that I should submit my application to the Three Gorges Corporation for the information I sought.

To tell the truth, I am not satisfied with the responses from the three bodies described above, but I wanted to share my experience by recording all of these details. Of course this is not a conclusion, because things appear not to be over, but are, in fact, only just beginning.

Ren Xinghui, Transition Institute, Beijing

Translated by Probe International, May 3, 2010

This article is also available in Chinese at: China Elections and Governance (Zhongguo xuanju zhili wang) http://www.chinaelections.org/ http://www.chinaelections.org/newsinfo.asp?newsid=163523
SOHU: http://renxinghui86.blog.sohu.com/143347313.html)

Further Reading:

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s