Premier Li's promotion of information disclosure

Updated: 2015-09-18 21:39

By Huang Minmin and Xu Oulu(Translated by

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Premier Li's promotion of information disclosure

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (fourth from left) visits the warehouse explosion site in Tianjin on Aug 16, 2015. [Photo/provided to]

An impromptu interview with Premier Li

A reporter from Hong Kong's Cable TV, Chan Yuen-tung, decided to intercept Premier Li Keqiang and ask him a question.

He already had the question in mind: "What do you think of the fact that many of the firemen are off-staff?"

Hearing that Premier Li had arrived at the Tianjin explosion site at around 2pm on August 16, Chan had the idea of interviewing him.

Chan and his colleague met up with Premier Li's motorcade near a temporary house set up for disaster-affected people, but were confined at a security distance of nearly 100 meters.

An experienced companion suggested that Premier Li was likely to go to the Taida Hospital two kilometers away where the injured were being treated.

Chan and his cameraman went there and waited tens of meters away from the gate of the hospital, thinking after a while that it could have been a wrong choice.

After three minutes, however, they saw Premier Li exiting a car.

"It was my first time to see Premier Li." Chan still thinks he was very lucky to be there when he arrived.

They successfully hid themselves in Premier Li's entourage while Premier Li said hello to the healthcare workers.

"We were so cautious with every step, afraid that someone might discover us," Chan said.

"The staff didn't stop us probably because they thought we were permitted."

Not long after entering the hospital, the cameraman was suspected and called away by a security guard. He pretended not to know Chan to protect him. Chan lowered his head, followed close behind the permitted media, and entered the elevator. He kept silent.

"If I spoke with a strong Cantonese accent, it could have messed up," Chan said.

Without the help of the cameraman, Chan put his bag in front of his chest and used his cellphone as a camera, rehearsing the questions he wanted to ask Premier Li.

As soon as the elevator arrived on the 4th floor, someone discovered Chan and shouted: "He isn't a permitted media person!"

Premier Li was just passing by at that moment. Chan said that he then "shouted out desperately" that he was a reporter from Hong Kong.

"It was the last chance anyway."

"I didn't expect Premier Li to turn his head and come up to me. As soon as he came, all the security guards released their hands from me. Everything became perfectly silent," said Chan.

A staffer who witnessed the scene said: "I can't say Chan was polite, as he leaned his head back and put the microphone of his cellphone right in front of Premier Li's mouth."

"Premier Li! A great number of firefighters sacrificed themselves in the explosion..." Chan went on to ask his question about the firefighters' work status. Premier Li responded, "All the firefighters on active or inactive duty participating in the rescue are well-trained. They knew well about the danger, and chose to risk their own lives. We are very sorry and sad for their sacrifice. They are all heroes. There is no difference between active or inactive duty for heroes."

Premier Li answered the question comprehensively. It's obvious that he was well informed about public opinion.

The previous night, voices worrying about possible unfair compensation for firefighters on and off the payroll had flared upon the Internet. Netizens thought that firefighters with different identities, for example, those hired by firms and those serving as soldiers, might get different levels of compensation and pensions. Chan worried that he would be asked to delete the video of Premier Li's answer, but needlessly. After answering the question, Premier Li specifically told nearby staff, "Do not embarrass the reporter, it's his duty."

Premier Li's comments were sent to Hong Kong and an hour later broadcast in full. The TV station thus delivered great news for the firefighting heroes and their relatives.

The following day, when interviewing firefighters' relatives, Chan found that they had widely discussed Premier Li's remarks. "(The relatives) said Premier Li brought justice to them," Chan said.

A new situation opens

The cooperation between Premier Li and Chan, which happened rather accidently, helped to relieve the awkward relationship between the Chinese government and media.

In Premier Li's view, journalists trying their best to follow every lead help the public get to know the truth as early as possible. The government also gains insight thanks to journalists' work, which is useful for future decision-making. Premier Li himself often quotes media reports to elaborate his own viewpoints.

Changes happened in the Tianjin media. The day after the explosions, an article Tianjin, a city without journalism was popular online. Despite the title, it was obvious that the author meant to blame the government departments in charge rather than journalists.

Hundreds of reporters were in Tianjin. Before Premier Li showed his attitude to Chan, they were not allowed to get close to the scenes and sometimes were even required to delete the pictures they took. Many reporters felt that Tianjin's mood had changed after Premier Li talked to Chan.

The Internet era also made a difference to the city of Tianjin. At midnight on August 12, people saw the videos of the Tianjin explosions on Wechat and Weibo, the most popular Chinese social media.

Binhai New Area in Tianjin, where the explosions happened, is a trade zone connecting China to the world. Some of the videos were uploaded by foreigners, which means people around the globe could immediately see what was happening here.

International mainstream media were the first to publish the news about the Tianjin explosions, and "Tianjin" became a hot search term online. Journalists from all over the world rushed to China, and news about the explosions nearly overwhelmed the Web.

Questions arose both on the Internet and at news conferences. How many people died or were injured? Who's responsible for Ruihai International Logistics, the company from whose warehouse the explosions started? What was stored in the port? How will the chemical explosions harm the environment? To the questioners, if officials were silent it's because they felt guilty.

"Government procedures cannot always keep up with what the public requires. The most important thing governments need to do is relief and rescue work, but the public are eager to know the truth, the causes of accidents, and who are taking the responsibilities," said Wang Jingbo, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law and the vice president of the university's Research Center for Governance by Law.

In this situation, national leaders' attitudes are the stabilizing force.

On August 16, Premier Li arrived in Tianjin. He carefully observed the scene of the explosions from the high level bridge within 300 meters of the explosion site. It had been confirmed that there were still large amounts of cyanide stored at the fire scene.

Premier Li was in a white shirt without a chemical splash suit or mask. "The scene was like in a Hollywood disaster film when we came here." A field staff member said: "We were worried about the safety of Premier Li. At the beginning, the wind flowed towards the sea but suddenly it changed direction towards us. The smell was pungent."

Premier Li asked the technical staff: "What's that smell?" After he left the scene, the technical staff detected various harmful substances in the air exceeding safety standards.

The first thing Premier Li did was to promote information disclosure about the Tianjin explosions. "If authoritative information cannot reach the public, rumors will spread widely," said Premier Li.

"Whether it is safe or not must be confirmed by statistics rather than guarantees without evidence," Li said: "It's important to be clear in telling the truth: What is the gas? In what situation and at what range could it have what kind of effect? Make sure that information disclosure is in time and accurate, as well as open and truthful."

Disclosure after disasters

It was not the first time Premier Li was so tough and determined in front of the public at the site of an accident. The coincidence is that the name of Premier Li Keqiang has the word "tough" in it.

On June 1 this year, the cruise ship Eastern Star carrying 456 passengers sank in the Jianli section of the Yangtze River. It was the worst maritime accident ever on the river.

Premier Li arrived at the scene the day after the accident. Apart from emphasizing saving people as the priority, he asked the State Council to set up an investigation team to determine the causes of the accident.

From then on, many web portals started to live broadcast the rescue process of the sunken ship with pictures and articles.

On Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, government accounts began to update news about the accident, posting photos of the situation on the river and inside the ship and explaining the rescue measures. So questions were all answered quickly in real time. According to Ta Kung Pao, on the morning of June 3, the rescue and relief headquarters told foreign reporters that they were permitted to enter the scene to do interviews and take close-up pictures.

Premier Li declared the decision personally; until then people had not anticipated this access. He had requested the day before that related departments organize news conferences quickly and announce the latest important information about rescue progress every hour.

Disasters and accidents are different from everyday large-scale activities, so most government departments are usually caught off guard. A steady flow of information usually has to be sent to the commanders and then exported after analyzing and processing. The traditional way is to release the news that the government wants to spread preferentially. However, this outdated pattern is likely to become completely invalid in the mobile Internet era, and, if used, may even have an opposite effect to that intended.

"The government cannot make excessive demands on what the public do and care about. Even though some requests from the public aren't the focus of the government's work at that time, the government still needs to respond," said Wang Jingbo.

"Government should respond to and explain the things the public attach importance to. This is what valid information disclosure means," Wang said.

The mobile Internet era offers opportunities for everyone to become an information source. The public are no longer only passive information receivers, but also participants in information processing."People can take pictures via cellphones at any time and in any place. Information in public spaces has become extremely transparent, which is a driving force for society, promoting it to be more civilized, open and transparent," said Shen Yang, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.

Before, governments only needed to give modeled answers, which are known as"satisfying responses to the public".

In the mobile Internet era, however, Premier Li demands disclosure and transparency in the process of investigation.

The government is now more like a student solving problems on the blackboard. Everyone is watching, whether or not he knows how to find the answers.

No exception for disclosure

Disclosure has been the primary premise of governance under Li Keqiang. Earlier, when Li was vice-premier of China, he made great efforts to promote disclosure. For example, public opinion was solicited before the fuel tax reform was implemented in2008 as requested by Li. Before that, the Chinese government had seldom collected public opinion before they release new policies.

Li said, many people might think that if we allow disclosure and soliciting of public opinion, such policies as "tax collection'' will definitely not be approved. Policymakers have often discussed this issue."But the reform is proceeding smoothly," Li said, "Because we clearly reason things out and people know that we would never damage their interests."

In 2013, at the first clean governance working conference of the State Council after Premier Li took office, he proposed improving disclosure of government affairs and letting the people supervise the governments effectively.

"Modern society has high levels of transparency as China has hundreds of millions of Weibo users. If some government affairs are not disclosed in a timely manner, it would be widely discussed and commented upon, leading perhaps to groundless speculation. It may lead to public discontent, creating negative effects and putting governments in passive situations," said Li, "So it's better to take the initiative to have timely disclosure and tell the truth to the people."

So it requires both the government and the people to construct a long-term benign interaction. Premier Li pays close attention to such honesty as even one departure from this approach could cause distrust.

Sometimes, officials worry that soliciting suggestions from the public may cause too much opposition, so that the new policies may get rejected. This is how Premier Li answers: "What we governments do is to face the public and deal with problems related to public interests. We must not play a so-called ‘cat-and-mouse' game with the people.

"Soliciting suggestions rather than making once-and-for-all deals can reveal the ‘greatest common divisor' of desires and requests of the whole society."

"Our government especially emphasizes the openness and transparency of major administrative decision-making, which is subject to five procedures, namely public participation, expert discussion, risk assessment, legal review and group discussion," said Zhan Zhongle, an expert in government affairs openness and a professor at Peking University Law school.

Fiscal disclosure

In China, government revenues and expenditures used to be a controversial topic until Premier Li put forward the policy of budget openness in the first honest government conference he attended as China's Premier in 2013.

Li required that from that year forward, governments above the county level should be progressively open about financial income and expenditure. The proposal was extremely tough to carry out in China at that time. Li decided to vigorously promote budget openness. As the Premier of the country, he could give priority to this policy only if he showed courage and resolution.

Thus, he wrote the proposal into the Report on the Work of the Government in 2014:

"We will institute a comprehensive, well-regulated, open and transparent budget system. We will work hard to incorporate all government revenue into the budget, and bring all revenue and expenditures under budgetary management. Governments at all levels should release their budgets and final accounts to the public, and budgets released by government bodies should progressively include details down to basic regular and project expenditures. In particular, all public spending on official overseas trips, official vehicles, and official receptions should be made public. We will ensure transparency of public finance and make it easy for people to understand and oversee it."

In accordance with the proposal, a strict requirement was also raised: "Except for the state-secret-related budget, we should not conceal anything. The entire government budget must be opened to the public," Li said during an executive meeting of the State Council.

On August 31, 2014, the 10th session of the 12th NPC Standing Committee approved the Resolution of the Amendment of the Budget Law. For the first time, "budget openness" was signed into law.

"The public have the right to know where the government spends its money and this should be under public supervision," Li said. In 2015, the new Budget Law was implemented. In April, the budget and final accounts of the central government departments were seen in public for the first time.

According to the new law, after the approval of the NPC, the Ministry of Finance is supposed to give official replies to the budgets of central departments and release them to the public within 20 days, and the central departments are required to publicize the information within 20 days of receiving the reply from the Ministry of Finance.

One of the cases is this year's central government budget, which was approved by the third session of the 12th NPC Standing Committee on March 15.

On March 25, the budget was released by the Ministry of Finance and on April 17, the information was shown by the central government.

Budget openness results in more standardized administration. Making the budget transparent contributes greatly to building the government's credibility.

In July 2015, the General Office of the State Council issued the Arrangement of the Open Government Information, specifying openness of government information in nine areas: administrative examination and approval, budget and the "three public expenses", affordable housing, food and drug safety, environmental protection, production safety, price and charges, land requisition and demolishing, and public enterprises and institutions.

The wave of openness and transparency of government information is sweeping the country.

Governments in the era of Internet Plus

Information and government affairs disclosure reflects the open spirit of the Internet. In fact, as early as 19 years ago, some savvy businessmen attempted to help with Chinese government affairs disclosure. At that time, this line of thinking seemed to be advanced.

In 1996, Ma Yun had just returned from America. He came to the National Sports Commission and expressed his ideas about "building a China Yellow Pages" and "advertising on the information highway". Three officials responded simply: "It's far more complicated than what you can imagine." Ma finally gave up his plans about China Yellow Pages and then established Alibaba Group in 1999.

"Compared with society generally, the overall reaction and technology updating speed of the government is not fast," said Wang Jingbo from China University of Political Science and Law. With the development of Internet technology and the rapid growth of the number of Web users, the Internet has become a great vehicle to implement information disclosure.

More than 90 percent of government agencies have established websites in China, most of which, however, lack high-level capacity. Some websites have become "blackboards" of government agencies and some fail to perform well technically.

In the last three years, all kinds of industries in China have faced the greatest evolutionary change in decades. Industrial and traditional enterprises have begun to apply the Internet, while Internet enterprises have seized the opportunity to embrace an interactive economy. This is the "Internet Plus" Premier Li referred to.

In the Chinese government work report this year, Li proposed the "Internet Plus" plan for the first time. He suggested using the Internet as a driving force for traditional industries. Though not specially emphasized, the government is one of the traditional industries that have felt the pressure.

The central government took the lead. The Chinese government simultaneously launched its accounts on social networks Weibo and Wechat on October 11,2013. In the first three months, the number of fans that followed the accounts grew to more than 10 million.

The accounts of government affairs authenticated by Sina Weibo exceeded 100,000 by the end of 2013. The number has rocketed to 280,000 this year.

The same thing happened on Wechat. In August this year, Wechat released a report showing that the number of official accounts of government affairs in China was more than 50,000, accessed by a population of over 150 million.

Both Weibo and Wechat are totally different from the past concept of a "China Yellow Pages" and government websites in the Internet 1.0 era.

It is obvious that the relationship between the people and the government is made closer by interactions such as liking, reposting, messaging and commenting.

By applying various new techniques, governments can not only release information and interact with the public, but also bring offices online so that they can serve people and solve problems through the Internet.

Professor Shen Yang at Tinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication named the new phenomena "the 3.0 era of electronic governance". "The basis of government affairs services is information disclosure. Only if governments realize complete information disclosure can they adapt to requirements of the people and society," Shen said.

Premier Li has been urging governments to publish their statistics, and stressing the importance of "big data" for governments' work. "Big data" was written into the government work report in March 2014 and one year later evolved into the concept of "Internet Plus". In the year 2014, six executive meetings of the State Council brought up "big data", and in 2015 Li had referred to "big data" five times as of August. Li said: "The statistics which contribute to the development of society and the economy and are not state secrets should be open to the public for their convenience."

Historically, what people have denounced most was the data sharing between different regions and government departments. If you search online, you can see stories about people wasting time rushing back to their hometown to get identifying papers like non-criminal certificates, marriage status certificates, family relationship certificates, and even living certificates.

Premier Li mentioned the hot topic of "ridiculous certificates" at an executive meeting of the State Council in May this year.

"I read a report saying that a citizen wanted to travel abroad, and he was asked to fill in the emergency contact. He wrote down his mother's name, and then the related department required a certificate proving that "his mother is his mother". How can that be proved? What a joke!"

Premier Li's tough attitude is evident whenever he discusses government efficiency and people's dissatisfaction.

If data sharing of household registration information is realized, such jokes will not happen. The system will be able to recognize relationships between people, just as social networking services like Wechat and Weibo can recommend new friends for users according to their contact lists.

Premier Li encouraged the departments to break walls between them and cooperate on data sharing at the executive meeting of the State Council on August 19.

He said: "Up to now, government departments have built more than ten data platforms. The problem is, however, that the platforms are not connected effectively. They are like ‘solitary islands' of information."

Only inter-connected information has value. "With the technologies, the connection of information should be easy, just as it is for the commercial websites. But government websites are bad at it," Li said.

Companies like Alibaba and Tencent are helping some local governments with their government-affairs statistics via the companies' cloud computing, connecting the "solitary information islands".

Through this cooperation, governments can access big data when they make decisions, and the companies can enhance user loyalty by providing electronic government services.

As with Amazon and the Chinese shopping website, supported by Alibaba, where every purchase can be tracked and every shop has a credit rating, in the online government service system every step can be watched by the public. The Chinese government, for its part, rewards the Internet companies by removing obstacles to their development.

New technologies have reshaped the connection between governments and the people. More and more government services can be provided through the Internet or even mobile Internet.

With people able to readily access data online instead of rushing around, efficiency and a better rhythm of business and life accelerate.

At an economic symposium in April, Premier Li responded to the issue of "expensive Internet services", which is especially important to Internet companies.

"The first thing people do when they arrive at a place is to ask whether there's WiFi. Why? It's because data rates in China are too high," Li said, "Some developing countries have faster Internet speed than Beijing does."

A slow speed and high rates only affect ordinary people with their entertainment and work. But for enterprises, they not only lessen user experience but also increase operating costs., a company of Alibaba Group specializing in cloud computing, commented on the necessity of Internet speed enhancement and data rates reduction: "The significance is not less than that of the transition to the age of electrified high-speed trains from the age of coal-fueled trains."

This article was first published in Chinese by Huang Minmin and Xu Oulu in the biweekly Blog World on September 11, 2015.