A paper by Chun Peng
Since May 1 of 2008, the Regulations on Open Government Information (the OGI Regulations, English translation here) have formally triggered the legal mandate for information disclosure for all government agencies across China. Over the last ten years, much attention has been paid to how much progress towards transparency can be and has been made in a political system long dogged by secrecy, with an enormous amount of ink spilled on this area of law. Yet one issue remains relatively untrodden, if not unknown, among scholars and observers interested in the Chinese transparency regime. That is transparency for public enterprises and institutions.
As part of the legacy from the planned economy of the pre-reform era, public enterprises and institutions, in Chinese 公共企事业单位, also known as state-owned enterprises and state-sponsored institutions, continue to perform a variety of public functions and/or to receive public funds. They still loom large in Chinese people’s lives today, spanning from health care to education, from transportation to electricity. Against this background, the level of transparency of these quasi or non-governmental organizations bears much significance and warrants more attention. In this paper I attempt to fill the gap in the existing literature.
It starts by explaining the legal framework of open public enterprises and institutions in China, paying particular attention to its difference from the same regarding administrative organs and empowered organizations under the OGI Regulations. The previously unnoted dualistic structure within China’s transparency law is pointed out and the 2019 amendment to the OGI Regulations to reinforce such a structure be introduced. I then explain the fourfold conventional wisdom that underpins such a legal change, as articulated by officials entrusted with the drafting task: First, it was believed that because public enterprises and institutions do not qualify as administrative subjects, they are usually unable to enter into administrative litigation. Even if they become defendants, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the courts to review the legality of their disclosure decisions. Second, it was suggested that the responsibility of ensuring public enterprises and institutions’ transparency, including settling grievances arising from lack thereof, is better entrusted to the oversight departments than to the judiciary. Third, the drafters thought that public enterprises and institutions should be considered regulatees whose transparency obligations are different from the freedom of information requirements that apply more generally to the government, and closer to compulsory disclosure requirements imposed on listed companies or charitable organizations. The fourth and last official rationale is that globally, the freedom of information laws primarily target government agencies rather than non-government organizations.
The rest of the article dissects the above reasoning and puts forward counterarguments. It first reports and assesses the transparency performance of the Chinese public enterprises and institutions since the implementation of the OGI Regulations in 2008, particularly in comparison to that of the administrative organs. It will be made clear that public enterprises and institutions had a rather poor transparency record over the last decade or so, due to a lack of hierarchical pressure from the government departments responsible for overseeing their operation. In other words, although it became a legal requirement back in 2008 that public enterprises and institutions should be more open, there has remained a huge gap between the law on paper and law in action. In contrast, as a silver lining, this paper demonstrates that the Chinese judiciary has actually been active yet prudent in scrutinizing public enterprises and institutions’ compliance with the OGI Regulations, in spite of the institutional barrier created by the dualistic structure. The paper then argues that to incorporate public enterprises and institutions into the OGI Regulations is in line with both the Chinese constitutional imperative for participatory democracy and the international mainstream of including non-governmental entities performing public functions and/or receiving public funds in the freedom of information legislation. This means that the underlying rationale for enhancing the dualistic structure by the 2019 amendment is wrongheaded. The concluding part summarizes and makes proposals for further legal reforms in this area.
Chun Peng’s paper is published with the University of Pennsylvania Asian Law Review and available here.
Chun Peng is presently an assistant professor and assistant dean at Peking University Law School. He received his doctorate and master’s degree in law from the University of Oxford and holds a double degree in law and economics from Peking University. He has published widely on Chinese constitutional law, administrative law and comparative law in English and Chinese. Besides scholarly work, he writes op-eds on China and the world at The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin. His book Rural Land Takings Law in Modern China: Origin and Evolution is published with Cambridge University Press. More recently, he is interested in data governance and privacy law and has published on China’s social credit system and the newly enacted PRC Personal Information Protection Law.