Open government in China vs. U.S.


By Nathan Mehrens



For a demonstration on how words can sound great, but have no effect without action, read the platitudes given by President Obama regarding government transparency and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA is designed to give citizens a window into the federal government’s inner workings.

In his first week in office, the President established a FOIA policy favoring disclosure. The policy stated that his Administration was to work with a presumption that disclosure would be the norm and that records about how the government works wouldn’t be withheld from disclosure based upon technical rules. The President stated:

“A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, ‘sun-light is said to be the best of disinfectants.’ In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.

“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.”

Now, compare these statements with platitudes from another government, the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese have their own records disclosure law, the People’s Republic of China State Council Order No. 492.

The preamble to this law states that its purpose is the following: “To protect citizens, legal persons and other organizations to obtain government information according to law, improve the transparency of government work, promote administration according to law, give full play to the government information to the people’s production…”

It further states that “governments at all levels should strengthen the organization and leadership of the government information disclosure work.”

The scope of the disclosures to be provided is described in great detail. For example, there is supposed to be voluntary disclosure of items that involve “vital interests of citizens,” and items for which “the need is widely known.”

The individual component parts of the government “should take the initiative to open government information through government gazette, government websites, press conferences, newspapers, radio, television, etc. to facilitate the public to be open.”

There is even a discussion of how to setup a “public reading room.”

A balancing test is in place to determine whether to disclose information that infringes on issues such as “commercial secrets” or “personal privacy.” The test, like that applicable to some records under the U.S. FOIA, looks at whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs any privacy interests.

Timelines for disclosing records are set. In those instances where the appropriate disclosure officer can “answer on the spot, it should be answered on the spot.” Otherwise, an initial 15 working-day period is set which can be extended by another 15 days. In the U.S., the initial deadline for production of records is 20 days. There is also a frequently-invoked extension of an additional 10 days.

If you are visually or hearing impaired, the Chinese agency is to provide any necessary assistance for you to be able to use the records.

This all sounds very helpful, and in many ways bears a striking similarity to our own FOIA and the statements made regarding it by the President.

But, does anyone really believe that the Chinese government is interested in disclosing records, especially when those records uncover unpleasant facts regarding it? Given their heavy-handed censorship of the Internet, the obvious answer is, “no.”

Similarly, in the U.S., the actions of the President and his officials have not fulfilled the words he spoke. The current controversy surrounding the emails of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provides an apt demonstration. While stating a desire for transparency and accountability, the exact opposite actually occurred as she worked hard to make it extremely difficult for any of her records to be released.

In many ways, the Administration’s actions in this area could make one believe that they are following the mantra of the old Drew Carey show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, “the show where everything’s made up, and the points don’t matter.” As such, it is vital that we watch what is done, not just what is said because words without action are meaningless.

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Nathan Mehrens is the President of Americans for Limited Government Foundation.

By Nathan Mehrens

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