Olympics: Dark skies for Games? Maybe ‘Sunshine Government’ can clear them

Yesterday, I posted two pieces that showed how China’s good intentions toward the media can go wrong, or never get under way in the first place. The first item described a Reuters report on new guidelines that had been handed down to the police about how to handle the media if an embarrassing demonstration should break out during the Games. The message was, basically, “hands off the media,” and it came after Beijing cops beat up some Hong Kong reporters last week. China might not want to open up its media, but it certainly knows bad publicity when it sees it.


But that entry was shoved down the blog queue by news that the police in Kashgar had apparently not gotten the memo, and had roughed up two Japanese newsmen and chased off a Reuters correspondent from the scene of the attack that killed 16 policemen the day before. Well, here’s another example of a good idea that hasn’t paid off for media in China, at least so far. On May 1, 2008, legislation that looks somewhat like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act went into effect across China.


The Chinese call theirs the National Ordinance on Openness of Government Information, and it was written to bring China into an era of “Sunshine Government” as the official media explained it. The legislation had been passed the year before, and when it came into effect there was an immediate wave of requests for information from the media and from citizens who want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. The level of demand wasn’t unexpected; similar legislation had been passed in Shanghai in 2004, and between May 1, 2004, and December 31, 2007, Shanghai government agencies received a total of 35,282 access requests, according to a discussion site run by Ben Wei, lecturer at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.


Maybe not so surprisingly, the central government has not responded well to the idea that it should readily make available all that it knows to the people who are asking. David Bandurski, who works with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, posted articles (here and here) on CMP’s Web site recently that show the problems that petitioners are running into. And, just like the cops in Kashgar didn’t know they were not supposed to beat up journalists, officials across the country have apparently not gotten used to the idea that Chinese citizens have the right to ask questions of their government and expect answers.


As Bandurski says, in “repeated cases brought by citizens, cases have so far fizzled. China’s court system, which is often manipulated by party officials, seems utterly unable to push the government to live up to its promises.” Still, the legislation is in place and it is encouraging that media outlets in China have started to make use of the law, even if it hasn’t paid off so far.


A point we try to make regularly is that Chinese media, despite all the government’s efforts to control it, is far from a gray monolith, and in many ways is as dynamic as the rest of China in this period of rapid growth. HKU’s China Media Project is a great tool to use if you’re interested in a close look at media in China.