China Lets Transparency Genie Out of the Bottle

At China Real Time Report, Yiyi Lu describes moves toward greater transparency of government spending on “the three publics”: international travel, entertainment and vehicles for officials. These culminated in a State Council request that government agencies release the relevant figures, and an effective campaign by the media to push them into compliance.

Chinese media have interpreted this State Council demand as meaning that 30 June was the deadline for all central government agencies to publish their three-public budgets. Since the beginning of July, media have kept close watch over each agency’s move. By July 7, only three out of the 98 central government agencies had published their three-public budgets. With media applying constant pressure, the number of agencies disclosing their budgets increased to 27 by July 15 and 73 by July 22.

In addition to monitoring compliance among agencies, Chinese media have also compared the information released by each agency, praising those that offered details and explanations and criticizing those whose budgetary reports were opaque. In general, media appear to have been unimpressed. Not only have agencies been slow and stingy in releasing information, according to reports, but some agencies have even resorted to tactics such as publishing their budgets during weekends to try to avoid scrutiny ….

Despite the mixed results of this particular disclosure experiment, and despite all the questions that remain, the mere fact of that some numbers were made public bodes well. As one recent editorial in the Global Times, a tabloid published by the official People’s Daily, rightly argues (in Chinese): “Once this step has been taken, there will be no going back. This move will probably be a milestone in creating an open government in China. It is also a significant political reform measure.”