By Sun Liping, professor of sociology at Tsinghua University
Conventional wisdom maintains that the exercise of power should be made transparent so that behind-the-scenes manipulation can be avoided.
This is, however, easier said than done.
Take the recent social security fund scandal in Shanghai in which billions of yuan of money essential to individuals' lives were diverted to other investment purposes. Secret "black case" work was a major component in the scandal.
While corrupt officials were stealing public money, the Shanghai municipal government was trumpeting "bringing about a transparent government".
This is the same city that was the first in China to create the spokesman position to get information out to the public.
Some lessons from other parts of the country may help us learn how to create real transparency.
In many cases, the measures introduced by local governments to increase transparency are working fairly well. This includes spokesmen and e-government systems and other measures designed to make information accessible to ordinary people.
But this is far from enough, as demonstrated by the social security fund scandal. More has to be done in enforcing measures to make government work more transparent .
Recently, the city government of Handan in North China's Hebei Province, launched a pilot project geared in that direction.
First, the project clearly defines government power in various categories and at different levels.
A total of 266 items of power exercised by the city government and the departments directly under its authority were scrapped. Eventually, a total of 384 administrative licensing powers, 521 administrative punishment powers, 25 tax-levying powers and 184 fee-collecting powers were placed on the list of powers that can be exercised by the city government.
Restrictions are thus set on power. Meanwhile the powers that can be exercised are distinctly defined.
Operating under this "power streamlining", the Handan mayor can now exercise power over 92 items, excluding those concerning State secrets and security.
In this way, limited power helps lay down the foundation for smaller government. Without these clear-cut limits, people can find it hard to supervise the exercise of power because the power was limitless and ambiguously defined.
Law is the paramount yardstick against which power and its exercise are gauged.
First, in the course of sorting out the power items, Handan officials consulted 4,000 sets of rules, regulations and laws. Of the 266 items eliminated, some had no legal ground and others ran counter to law.
Second, the Handan project opened up the process through which power is exercised.
As a matter of fact, behind-the-scenes manipulation often happens in the course of wielding power.
The Handan officials came up with a seemingly clumsy approach: drawing the diagram of power.
Behind-the-scenes manipulation often occurs in the course of exercising power, making it difficult for ordinary people to track the wielding of power.
Therefore, strengthening the procedural links in this process is called for.
The power diagram in Handan specifies the minute details in the course of power use and offers answers to such questions as: Who is charged with the responsibility to do this job? In what way is the job fulfilled? When should it be done?
Third, the Handan project builds an Internet platform on which the addresses of the government departments, their telephone numbers, areas of responsibility and work procedures are posted.
This Web platform, in addition to government spokesman's briefings, press conferences and government bulletins, helps make information on government work accessible to the public.
It is estimated that 2,000 pieces of information are made available to Handan people each day. And the website is a two-way clearing house. People's inquiries, appeals and suggestions keep pouring in through this portal.
By all accounts, some substantial progress has been made in making Hadan government work more transparent . But some concerns still need discussion.
First, it is still easy for government officials to make public what they want the citizens to hear and hold back what they don't want the public to know.
In view of this, the Handan city government has formulated a regulation that, with clearly defined articles, holds government workers responsible for failing to inform the public of what they deserve to know.
Second, the quality of the information made public should be improved.
For example, data and figures which are simply dished out make little sense to laypeople and, therefore, constitute invalid information.
Third, different kinds of information should be targeted to different groups of citizens, particularly information involving expertise in specialized fields.
The author is professor of sociology at Tsinghua University
(China Daily February 7, 2007)