Monday, February 25, 2013
Does law matter in China? This is a question I'm often asked (skeptically) when I tell people what I study. As with just about everything related to China, no simple answer is possible. But sometimes you run across nice examples of how it might.
I was struck by this article on the Caixin web site today. Apparently the Ministry of the Environment possesses detailed data on soil pollution in China. Lawyer Dong Zhengwei made a request under the "Regulations on Open Government Information" for that data to be made public. In response, the MOE stated that the information could not be released as it was a state secret.
Surprise, surprise, right? Of course the government does not want to release this information. But think about how this scenario could have played out in an era not so different from today: (1) Lawyer requests information. (2) No response. And this could have happened whether or not there were regulations on open government information.
Instead, the existence of these regulations combined with a shift in what for want of a better term we might call legal culture has meant that the MOE apparently feels the need to respond in some way. It has to come up with a justification for not revealing the data. And that means it has to put itself in the embarrassing position of lamely claiming that this information is a state secret, implying that releasing it would somehow harm national interests.
Let's make two assumptions: (1) an action based on an explicit rationale is easier to criticize than one for which no rationale is supplied; and (2) government officials and agencies would, all other things being equal, prefer not to put themselves in the position of exposing themselves to criticism. If you buy those two assumptions, then at the margin we should expect to see more information being made available as a result of the regulations.
In other words, this law matters not because there is some institution out there (for example, courts) that can force the government to reveal information, but because the very procedure, even if it results in an effectively unreviewable decision not to disclose, puts some pressure on government to operate differently from the way in which it has operated in the past.