In early 2010, remote Baimiao Township in Sichuan Province, China, was dubbed the "naked government" when local officials posted its budget online, reportedly disclosing everything from salaries to the cost of notebooks and paper cups. Laura Neuman, who heads the Carter Center Global Access to Information Initiative, says this is unprecedented: "Previously, agency budgets were not open to the public. Now there is increasing acceptance that citizens should be able to see them."
Baimiao's new openness appears to be paying off. At a recent forum co-organized by The Carter Center, a representative reported that the town of about 11,000 residents and 20.7 square miles has attracted investments equivalent to 25.6 million USD, and the per capita income is predicted to more than double in the next year. Town officials attribute this good fortune to baring it all in the name of government transparency.
Transparency is a new frontier for China's government, traditionally shrouded in a culture of secrecy, but in 2008 the country issued an Open Government Information (OGI) regulation. Soon after, The Carter Center brought its Global Access to Information Initiative to the country. The Center conducts policy forums and provides training and technical support to key ministries, local government officials, and experts across the country to raise awareness about the value of citizen access to information. "It's an important tool for fighting corruption, encouraging investment, allowing better use of scarce resources, and increasing trust in the government," says Neuman.
Information about the environment, such as air and water quality, and government budgets are the two topics with the most information available to the Chinese public. (Photo: The Carter Center/S. Maxwell)
Two areas that have seen information flow most freely are the environment and government budgets. But the path to transparency has not been without obstacles. Because OGI is an administrative regulation - not a law - it doesn't have the legal teeth to punish those who skirt the regulation. In December 2012, The Carter Center co-organized a forum to urge officials to take the next step toward full accountability by enacting open government legislation.
After more than a decade of promoting and advancing the right of access to information in Latin American and African countries, The Carter Center has the experience to realize hurdles may be cleared, but the finish line is a moving target. Neuman says that, although the Carter Center Access to Information Initiative may soon be winding down in China, she is optimistic it achieved lasting results by "developing a group of experts within China who will continue to champion the right to information long after we stop working there."
A second prong of the Center's work to encourage more openness in China has been the promotion of democratization and good governance through online political discourse at www.chinaelections.org/ (Chinese) and chinaelectionsblog.net (English). "The Internet is the freest format of information in China, and our website reaches the largest number of people possible," says Yawei Liu, director of the Carter Center's China Program.
The website features 250,000 articles, ranging from news to literature to commentaries on current events, and is popular among students, scholars, citizens, and, yes, even some government officials. "It has been an important platform through which Chinese netizens can talk about the necessity of political reform," says Liu. Often, when he talks with people about the Carter Center-sponsored site, he said, "They cannot believe such a good website is actually a 'foreign' operation."
However, the Chinese government has forced the site to go offline more than once for allegedly spreading rumors and criticizing leaders. "The website is feared by some," says Liu, "not because it is spreading rumors - it is not - but because it is highlighting the urgency of political reform in China.
"We will be patient," he said, "because we know that the site provides a crucial service to help China transition into a more accountable and more stable political system."