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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004

China creeps toward a culture of openness


HONG KONG -- Last month, in a small but significant move toward greater openness and transparency, China for the first time made available to the public a portion of materials from its diplomatic archives for the period between the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 and 1955.

According to the Archives Law, passed in 1987, government files should be opened after 30 years. It apparently took the Foreign Ministry 16 years to organize its files and decide which ones to make available first. The roughly 3,000 files that have been made available account for about 30 percent of the 10,000 diplomatic files for the six-year period, or only 1 percent of the total of 330,000 files in the archives.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman explained that although 3,000 "may not be a lot, it is an important and positive first step." The aim of opening up, he said, "is to enable the Chinese people and the international community to understand fully China's diplomatic history and the efforts that it has made in safeguarding world peace and stability and promoting common development."

Of course, as long as the major portion of diplomatic files is suppressed, it will not be possible for either the Chinese people or the international community to "fully" understand China's diplomatic history.

Sensitive documents whose disclosure might impair the national interest or hamper China's relations with other countries are not being opened to the public. Thus, documents on the Korean War more than 50 years ago are still classified. Nevertheless, the partial opening is a step in the right direction and should be encouraged. It marks another move by China toward becoming a normal country.

To be sure, China's cooperation with the World Health Organization on SARS and avian flu is still a mixed picture and leaves much to be desired. But other recent events suggest that the country, by and large, is moving toward greater openness.

For example, the announcement of the opening up of China's diplomatic archives was quickly followed by news that the country's public-security organs are establishing a system to disclose information to the public.

An article in Beijing Xuexi Shibao, a weekly newspaper published by the Central Party School, hailed the setting up of a police information-disclosure system. Written by Liu Renwen, a scholar at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, it reported that China's public-security organs will soon usher in a system for the disclosure of information to the public. The Ministry of Public Security in Beijing and public security bureaus at lower levels have always been among the most secretive and feared organizations in the country.

Liu decried the tendency in China to treat information as confidential. He said that, a few years ago, there was a case of serial murders in which the victims were killed by cudgel-wielding criminals inside some of Beijing's underground tunnels. The murders were not made public until after the police had cracked the case, raising the question whether the number of victims could have been significantly reduced had the public-security organs notified the public of the danger earlier.

Similarly, he said, not long ago, after a court in Henan province began the trial of a man who had allegedly killed 17 juveniles in a hideous case of serial murders, quite a number of academics and people in the media asked whether public-security organs should have informed the public of the danger before the criminal was apprehended.

"For many years," he wrote, "the public security organs have, it seems, succumbed to such an unwritten practice: Disclose no information to the public before a case is cracked, especially when it comes to a major or serious case, during which top secrecy must be maintained throughout. However, facts have borne out that doing so is neither scientific nor conducive to heightening the public's awareness of crimes."

While the moves by both the Foreign Ministry and the Public Security Ministry are small, they suggest a gradual mental shift in China from a culture of secrecy to a culture of openness, from minimal disclosure to accepting disclosure as the principle while nondisclosure of information is the exception. This would be a tremendous step forward for China.

Another sign of a thaw in China is the signing of a petition by more than 100 prominent lawyers, academics and other reformers asking for a clearer definition of the crime of subversion so that citizens will know the extent to which they can legally criticize the government. While the petition may not be acted upon, its open circulation suggests an atmosphere in which citizens no longer fear government retribution.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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