IN the 1980s, when I was a Beijing-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, I had occasion to interview an official in Shanghai. How much of China's trade, I asked, was through Shanghai? The official responded: "I don't think that figure has appeared in the newspapers."
That official was keeping himself from running afoul of China's numerous laws on state secrets. In fact, then and even now, anything that has not appeared in the official Press can be considered a state secret, no matter how innocuous...
China's decision that casualties from natural disasters should no longer be considered state secrets is a welcome one. But it should move quickly to declassify other areas as well so that the country can move ahead. For example, if the number of casualties from natural disasters is no longer secret, one wonders why the number of war dead and wounded needs to remain classified.
At present, things such as the number of drug addicts, of HIV/AIDS sufferers, of people executed each year, the seriousness of the unemployment problem, the frequency and seriousness of public protests, can all be considered state secrets.
In addition, the strategy and overall plan of land use development, environmental quality reports, data on public health disasters caused by environmental pollution, information on serious accidents or industrial illnesses, unemployment and poverty of workers, and accusations against party leaders can all come under the rubric of state secrets.
But these are all issues that need to be confronted. Sweeping them under the carpet does not solve the problem and does not help China.
Besides, the prevalence of secrets lends itself to abuse. Officials often make use of the charge of disclosing state secrets to keep a veil over their own mistakes from prying eyes, including those of central government officials.
Bizarrely, the fact that something is a secret can in itself also be a secret and cannot be revealed. Thus, some Chinese are in a Catch-22 situation " they cannot tell the truth and at the same time cannot explain why they cannot tell the truth.