Why China Must Bury The False Alibi Of "State Secrets"

Beijing police on Tiananmen square
Beijing police on Tiananmen square
Qi Yue


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.

Lazy governance

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.

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.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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