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State Secrets

By Liu Chang (Global Times)

09:04, October 18, 2011

Li Yan, a graduate student, made headlines in September, when she sued three different ministries for not providing information she requested.

Li, a second-year graduate student at Tsinghua University's law school, began requesting information in May on the vice ministers' duties from a total of 14 ministries in order to write her thesis on administrative law procedures.

However, although 11 ministries did reply with the information she requested, the Ministry of Land and Resources, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Education failed to reply, the Oriental Morning Post reported.

According to the Regulation on Disclosure of Government Information, which took effect on May 1, 2008, government administrations should reply within 15 working days to applicants who request information for research purposes.

After giving up hope toward receiving any responses to her requests, Li decided to "stand up and protect the right to know," and sued the three ministries at Beijing No.1 intermediate people's court on September 9.

On October 9, exactly one month after Li filed the lawsuit, she told the media she had received replies from all three ministries and received the information she requested, and then later withdrew her lawsuit.

It seemed a happy ending for all parties involved. However, it shows it is still difficult for ordinary people to gain access to government information, despite the relevant regulation currently in place.

"My supervisor once told me that the disclosing of government information is like a bell. It will not ring unless you hit it," said Li, according to the Oriental Morning Post. "I think it is the same with public information. We must all use our hands to make changes happen."

Hidden line

One problem with disclosing government information is that a clearer line needs to be drawn between information that can and cannot be disclosed.

In May, the State Council requested all ministries to publicize their spending on official car usage, overseas business visits, and reception and operation fees.

However, on August 22, one month after the State Council's deadline to publish those financial figures, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they would not disclose their spending figures because the figures may involve a few "State secrets," the Beijing News reported.

The reason offered by the Foreign Ministry has triggered public discussion on what should be classified as "State secrets." However, no official conclusion has been drawn.

On September 21, the Legal Weekly reported that in Hebei Province, the resume of Yan Ning, a 29-year-old man who was newly appointed as the vice county leader in Guantao, was also classified as a "secret" by the local government.

However, the classification has not been able to keep Yan's resume private; instead, it has made the rounds on microblogs and forums by a group of resourceful Internet users, which has drawn public speculation on why Yan's background and past experience should be kept from the public.

Improving disclosure

Lao Kaisheng, dean of the Institute of Educational Legislation and Policy at Beijing Normal University, told the Global Times there is not a clear line between what is considered secret government information and what is not.

"The government had a mechanism in place to regulate secret information and documents. However, the mechanism was outdated and could no longer meet the requests of modern society," Lao said. "Also, secret documents are published after a certain number of years in some countries. However, once a document is classified as secret in China, it remains secret."

"However, a piece of information cannot be completely blocked simply by labeling it 'secret.' It could still flow among the public through hearsay and gossip, causing rumors and sometimes trouble," said Lao. "So for information that is not secret, we should make it available to the public in order to avoid criticism."

"The huge flow of information brought on by booming network technology has created great challenges to the government at different levels. But speaking from government mentalities and operations, the government might not yet be prepared to meet the challenges," Lao added.

Zhang Xiulan contributed to the story

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