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Promoting Freedom of Information in China

The China Law Center has been engaged in assisting development of freedom of information in China for nearly a decade. Our work in this area remains exceptionally dynamic as implementation and experience under China’s State Council Open Government Information (OGI) Regulations, which took effect May 1, 2008, continue to deepen. We recently partnered with outstanding Chinese scholars to mark International Right to Know Day 2011 through a series of activities.

On September 26, the Center co-hosted a workshop with Professor Zheng Chunyan of the Guanghua Law School, Zhejiang University. The meeting in Hangzhou brought together a veritable “Who’s Who” of Chinese scholars, judges and government officials involved in the drafting and implementation of the OGI Regulations, to discuss concrete challenges in carrying out the mandate of information disclosure and how to overcome those challenges. These topics included increasing disclosure in the context of administrative enforcement activities such as inspections, imposing penalties and licensing and in the policy-making process, as well as questions on standards and approaches to handling OGI disputes, including the use of mediation and judicial review of these cases.

Our U.S. experts were Miriam Nisbet, the first director of the newly established “FOIA Ombuds” called the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., who formerly worked in the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy and has decades of experience in the field; Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut State Freedom of Information Commission, who also has extensive experience in handling FOI questions and disputes at the state level, including litigation; and Jamie Horsley, our Center’s Deputy Director.

On September 28, we held a similar workshop in Beijing with Professor Wang Xixin at Peking University Law School, with an audience consisting of academics, judges, and central and local government officials. Our Center has worked with Professor Wang for the past two years to design and carry out an assessment methodology to evaluate the implementation and efficacy of the OGI Regulations through a network of scholars and advocates called the Open Government Information Watch Alliance (OGIWA). The Beijing workshop was preceded by a press conference on this year’s assessment of Chinese government performance during the third year of implementing the OGI Regulations. A major goal of the OGIWA project is to improve efficiency and transparency by publicizing assessment results, an additional incentive for central and local governments to do a better job, as well as to provide assistance to government entities on how to improve their performance and legal aid and counseling to the public on filing OGI requests. The OGIWA teams analyze the annual reports on OGI work that governments and their agencies at all levels are required to submit by March 31 each year and file test requests.

The assessment’s basic findings concluded that government performance in 2010 improved since 2009. Provincial level governments receiving a passing score of 60 or higher increased to 60%, although fewer than 20% of central government departments (eight out of 43 departments assessed) receiving a passing score. In last year’s assessment barely half the provinces passed or came close to passing, and only two out of 43 State Council departments passed. Moreover, it appears from the government response Professor Wang received, and the attention the media has paid to OGI, these assessments have helped raise the profile of OGI activities in China and provided an incentive for governments to improve their performance.