BEIJING - One of the stated functions of the Ministry of Environmental Protection is to monitor the environment, and to publish the findings. But when a Beijing lawyer asked the Ministry to publish its national soil pollution survey, he was turned away. The reason? The findings were a state secret.
In China, the "state secret” is a concept the government routinely uses when it doesn’t want to disclose information. Governments should follow the principle of ‘disclosure as a rule, secrecy as an exception.’ Unfortunately, in this country the exact opposite is the standing rule: ‘keep everything secret and disclosures as exceptions.’
For instance, when the public demanded the releaseof the minutes of meetings for the formulation of new national dairy standards, the Ministry of Health refused on the grounds that it would create "consternation in the community and unnecessarily burden administrative staff."
And when people asked the Ministry of Railways to make the tendering process of its new and very expensive online booking service public, they were told to mind their own business. Same when they asked about how much money had been collected from tolls on the Beijing Capital Airport Expressway and where the money had gone… the list of state secrets is long.
Article 9 of China’s Open Government Information Regulations says that "Administrative organs should disclose government information that involves the vital interests of citizens, legal persons or organizations; information that needs to be extensively known or participated in by the general public.”
Clearly, information relating to soil contamination data involves the vital interests of citizens and should be made public, and contamination management needs public participation. Article 10 goes further and “emphasizes disclosure of information on the supervision and inspection of environmental protection, public health, safe production, food and drugs and product quality.”
It is clear that the national soil contamination data is in line with every aspect of these provisions and should be denied the state secret treatment.
Of course, we understand the government officials’ worry that a disclosure of information could create a panic. But this fear does not seem justified – as was recently proved by the case of PM 2.5 particulate matter pollution. After Beijing authorities were finally forced to publish its air quality measurements, which showed the city’s air pollution had reached dangerous levels, there was no panic. On the contrary, the capital's residents became more aware of environmental protection and the sales of fireworks decreased.
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Beijing fog over Tiananmen Square - Photo: michael davis-burchat
So why are there so many state secrets? The reason is the authorities’ lazy governance – they know that publishing information will give them additional work and will complicate their lives. They have obviously forgotten that as civil servants, their rights are endowed by the people and should be used for the people.
If our officials realized this, then they would know that the national soil pollution survey, which took years to conduct and cost taxpayers much money, should be made public. Not to mention that it is just nonsense to refuse the public’s demands for disclosure.
This is why China needs to set up an oversight and accountability mechanism so that public institutions stop denying public requests for transparency. Our representatives should play a more positive role. This is definitely something that should be addressed at this year’s National People’s Congress – our 3,000 representatives’ true mission is to respond to public issues of general interest.