Thursday, June 19, 2008
The New Beijing News (新京报) yesterday carried a report on what purports to be the first case heard by Beijing courts on access to government information under the Regulations on Open Government Information (政府信息公开条例), which came into effect on May 1.
The facts of the case are quite interesting and involve all kinds of historical complications. The plaintiff's father owned quite a bit of housing stock in various parts of Beijing prior to 1949. In 1951, the (Beijing?) Real Estate Administration Bureau (房屋管理局) confirmed his ownership. (Urban land was not officially uniformly nationalized until the 1982 constitution declared all urban land to be state-owned.) Later, for "historical reasons" (usually a code word for things that happened during the Cultural Revolution), the housing "underwent changes" such that the plaintiff's family could no longer occupy and use the housing. In May, the plaintiff apparently decided to try to trace what had happened with a view to asserting her rights over the property. She went to the Dongcheng District Real Estate Administration Bureau to present an official request under the Regulations to see ownership records for the properties. A week later, the Bureau officially refused her request.
The Bureau's Notice of Refusal did not specify a particular reason for refusing, stating instead that the reason was "other circumstances under laws, regulations, or relevant rules in which information is not made public" (this language appears in quotation marks in the news report, but the Notice of Refusal does not appear to be quoting any passage from the Regulations). Needless to say, this wasn't very helpful to the plaintiff. Upon further inquiry, she was told that the housing in question had become "managed rental property" (经租房). This refers to housing stock that around 1958 was essentially taken over by the municipal government and rented out by it to tenants, possibly with some symbolic payment to owners and without any formal expropriation proceedings. (This was 1958, remember; it was consistent with the spirit of the times to say that landlords could own real property but that all rentals should be under unified state control, just as peasants could own their crops but all sales had to be under a uniform state purchasing system.) According to Document No. 2007107 issued by the Beijing Construction Commission (date unspecified), the housing's ownership had changed; the ownership of managed rental property vested in the state, and so individuals had no right to see information about it.
The plaintiff naturally disagreed, and so filed suit under the Regulations. She has also asked the Beijing Construction Commission for a copy of Document No. 2007107, but has not yet received a response.