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Landmark Decree to Encourage Gov't Transparency
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The State Council, on Tuesday granted the release of a set of milestone regulations to boost official transparency, ordering government departments to be more open in giving out information.

Premier Wen Jiabao has signed a decree of the State Council to promulgate the regulations, which are likely to become China's most specific and progressive rules encouraging the publicity of government information when they take effect on May 1, 2008.

Governments at various levels will be required to give out information that involves the immediate interests of individuals and groups, and that which explains administrative institutions and procedures, the regulations say.

Listed as priorities by the State Council are details on how government departments plan to deal with emergencies, government expenses, specific charges for administrative and public services, and results of investigations into environmental protection, public health, and food and drugs safety.

Local governments will also be required to publicize data on land acquisitions, residence relocations, and related compensation.

Township authorities will have to give out information on land use, financial accounting, the operation of rural collective enterprises, and the family situations of local residents in order to ensure the fair enforcement of the family planning policy.

The regulations also contain a clause saying official information releases "should not harm state security, public safety, normal economic operation, and social stability.”

Governments at various levels are required to compile information directories, which should include the name, address, telephone and fax numbers, and e-mail address of departments that have a responsibility to release official information.

Government departments will be checked regularly to see whether they withhold information and the public is encouraged to report information blackouts, according to the regulations.

In case the government fails to carry out its obligations defined by the regulations, officials responsible will be punished if the violations are serious, the regulations say.

The rules also give the public the right to seek information from the government through a written inquiry.

Upon receiving the inquiry, the administrative staff should respond immediately if possible, the regulations say. If the inquiry can't be replied to immediately, it should be responded to within 15 working days, or 30 working days at most.

In the meantime, the regulations remind government departments to steer clear of "state secrets, confidential commercial information and infringement on an individual's privacy.”

Officials should consult the country's laws to determine whether or not it is appropriate to make certain information public, the regulations say. If they cannot decide, they should report to higher authorities.

Experts say this is remarkable progress for China, a country where death tolls from even natural calamities were considered a taboo.

On July 28, 1976, the country witnessed the devastating Tangshan earthquake in north China's Hebei Province, but the report of a death toll of 240,000 people was released three years later.

The central authority later realized the importance of timely official information release in 2003 when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic was spreading rapidly.

(Xinhua News Agency April 24, 2007)

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