BEIJING—Ren Xinghui has a question about his electricity bill: How is the government spending it?
Since the 1990s, China’s power bills have included a small charge, the equivalent of a few cents, earmarked for construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Mr. Ren believes the levy has raised billions of dollars for China’s massive dam, but he says the government has only once released an annual tally of the spending. So he recently sued China’s Ministry of Finance for a more complete accounting.
Stephen Shaver for The Wall Street JournalChinese artist Ai Weiwei stands in front of a list of missing and found children he has compiled during the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.
A few years ago, that could lead to trouble: China’s Communist Party has traditionally guarded information, a key tool to its hold on power, and controlled the media, resulting in few detailed accounts of its doings.
Now, Beijing is officially endorsing the push toward more transparency. Open government is one of the themes of the National People’s Congress, a ten-day legislative session of nearly 3,000 delegates that opened last week. On Wednesday, a senior lawmaker said on the session’s sidelines that legislators would start reviewing later this year an amendment to China’s budget law that would further enhance transparency.
Mr. Ren is among a growing cadre of activists attempting to hold Beijing to its pledges, using a freedom of information regulation China enacted two years ago. As their efforts progress, a line is beginning to appear between what Beijing is comfortable divulging and what it will hold tight.
The regulation has been hailed by activist lawyers and environmentalists for laying out, for the first time, the government’s obligation to make public what it does. A wave of high-profile positive coverage by the state-controlled media shows the central government is interested in promoting its efforts.
But activists say the regulation is vague and full of exceptions. Information relating to state statistics, budgets, building projects, food safety and the state of the environment are covered. But the government can withhold anything considered a state secret or sensitive commercial information, which could exempt a swath of activities the government does through state-owned enterprises.
The government is also struggling with how to handle such requests, starting with basics such as creating request forms. Some bodies have shared their books with applicants, while others have been slow to respond. Shanghai resisted requests to open the city’s budget, arguing that its contents were a state secret. Later, under a wave of bad press, it said it would publish part of its finances this year.
Last week, a prominent Chinese activist and artist sued the Ministry of Civil Affairs for allegedly failing to respond to his information request about the toll and cost of the 2008 Sichuan quake. Ai Weiwei said he had filed a request in November asking the ministry how many buildings fell in the quake, how much was donated and how much recovery cost, among other things.
Mr. Ai said the ministry didn’t respond, so he filed suit last week in the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court demanding the information. The ministry and court didn’t respond to requests to comment.
“In China, there is a deeply entrenched culture of secrecy, arrogance and privilege on the part of the government and its officials,” wrote Fu Hualing, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, in China Rights Forum, a human-rights publication. The open government regulations potentially offer “a sword for citizens to fight against malfeasance by monitoring the government effectively.”
China’s regulations on open government information went into effect in May 2008 after they were passed a year earlier by the State Council, China’s cabinet. Similar to the U.S.’s Freedom of Information Act but weaker, they were established to comply with World Trade Organization transparency requirements as well as to help the central government uncover local corruption and increase Chinese companies’ competitiveness, said Peking University law professor Shen Kui, a specialist in constitutional law.
Mr. Shen and his colleagues decided to test the new rules almost immediately, applying to find out how tolls from the expressway to Beijing’s airport were being spent. City agencies passed the question to the highway operator, which objected that its budget is commercially sensitive, according to Mr. Shen and media accounts. The city government declined to comment.
An entrepreneur in southern China was having better luck. Wu Junliang returned to China after 20 years in the U.S., where he was an avid observer of politics. While working at a financial firm in Shenzhen, the boomtown near Hong Kong, he and a group of volunteers requested budget information from dozens of local and regional governments in an attempt to understand how their tax payments were being spent.
“I’m trying to raise taxpayers’ consciousness by letting them see where their money is going,” Mr. Wu said. “Letting them know what their rights are—that’s democratic progress.”
To the applicants’ surprise, in 2008 the Shenzhen municipal government allowed them to review the books. The official who escorted them didn’t allow copies, but did let them photograph several hundred pages.
When they sent out requests a year later, Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, also agreed to open its records. The city budget—about two gigabytes’ worth of data—was too big to email. City officials posted it online. Public response was so great that the site crashed soon after it went up.
China’s state-controlled media gave the move widespread and positive coverage. Lavish spending on a kindergarten for city officials’ children, overseas trips and cars drew public ire, Mr. Wu said, prompting the government to promise reforms. This year’s budget hasn’t been published yet.
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Back in Beijing, Mr. Ren is less optimistic that he will learn how the government has spent the electricity levy. Mr. Ren, a 24-year-old constitutional law scholar, works at the Transition Institute, a small think tank that operates in a chilly office above a music school and is funded largely through consulting work.
The son of poor farmers from Western China’s arid Gansu Province, Mr. Ren started looking into the Three Gorges finances while setting up a Web site about the dam. The hydropower project was built despite strong reservations within China and abroad, forced the relocation of some 1.3 million people, and has since been criticized for its adverse environmental impact.
Beijing has considered the Three Gorges budget a state secret. When first approved in 1992, construction was estimated to cost around $8 billion. Last year, the government said the dam, including relocation, cost about $37 billion. Some critics estimate the true cost is as much as twice that much. Beijing has said some of the dam’s resettlement funds were misused by local governments but pledged to clean up the problems.
This past fall, Mr. Ren petitioned the Ministry of Finance for a full accounting.
A spokesman for the ministry said it answered Mr. Ren’s request, pointing to published figures for the dam’s 2008 construction budget, where income was 20.26 billion yuan (about $3 billion at current rates) and spending was 20.456 billion yuan. But Mr. Ren wants data from the more than 10 years the electricity levy has been in place.
In January, he sued the ministry. He is waiting to find out if the courts will accept his case.
Should they turn him down, he is already prepared an appeal. “I’m an electricity consumer, I paid this money,” he said. “I should know how they use it.”
contributed to this article.