21 February 2020

POLICY WATCH: Transparency seen in a new light

China’s army of bureaucrats has just received its latest marching orders: No more beating around the bush.

In an Oct. 15 circular, the State Council, China’s cabinet, told them to be upfront, prompt and cordial when handling media inquiries. 

The aim is to ensure transparency in government activities, respond to public concerns on a wide range of issues, encourage participation by the populace in national affairs and improve China’s standing in the world community.

Transparency, or lack of it, has been a key consideration for foreign companies planning to invest in the mainland. China wants to win them from freer neighboring economies.  

The new policy puts paid to a longstanding practice by certain local governments to withhold certain information, delay its release or keep silent about it. This has often caused public anger and tarnished the image of the central government.

Traditional media, which relies heavily on official announcements and press briefings, often lags public demand for critical information. Increasingly, people have been resorting to the internet and social media for such information, making the government wary of rumors and speculation and the potential impact of runaway public opinion. 

In one such instance, discussion groups on weibo, China’s Twitter-like micro blog service, forced the central government to disclose hourly pollution readings in 70 major cities on the PM2.5 standard, which measures tiny particulates, starting in January.

The government had played down the pollution problem until the United States embassy in Beijing began publishing its own PM2.5 readings and smog over the capital and neighboring cities worsened to alarming levels this year.

A wave of weibo posts critical of the government’s handling of the pollution problem prompted the State Council to issue a directive to local governments to use new media channels for releasing pollution readings and to improve interaction with the public.

In the latest initiative, the State Council wants government departments to better explain policies and regulations to the public, particularly in matters involving livelihood and the macroeconomy. They have been told to hold at least one press conference every three months and make better use of government websites, hotlines and other forms of communication.

“We should improve the spokesperson system and make it more professional,” said Cai Mingzhao, deputy director of the State Council Information Office. “We should harness new technology and make information readily available to the public. Feedback should be studied so that policymaking will be more targeted.” 

– Contact the reporter at [email protected]


    EJ Insight writer