China calls for openness

March 17, 2011

This article by Channel News Asia http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_asiapacific/view/1117111/1/.html is an interesting postion for the Chinese authorities to be in. The attitude to information-sharing in Chinese Government dealings with the public could not be seen as an exemplar of public openness – and some would say that is for good reason.

A fellow student at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies who worked at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (is it called the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? I can’t remember, the equivalent anyway) explained to me how some concepts of leadership prevalent in China prioritise protection and security ahead of openness and information sharing.

This was seen in responses to the media “blackout” following riots in Xinjiang province last year. I was predictably appaled that media would be censored a internet access cut because it offends my ideas of “basic freedoms”. Many of my good friends and classmates from China explained that the way they saw it, the Government was protecting people in the rest of China from the insecurity that it would cause if they repeatedly heard about the riots. Questioning the authority of the Government in this way was described as undermining and unhelpful rather than being framed as “standing up for your rights” as it would be in New Zealand and many other countries.

Admittedly at least one of my Chinese friends thought that the media blackout was a bad thing so I’m not trying to generalise here, but what I found interesting is that there are two sides of the coin when it comes to Government openness.

We’ve recently had a huge earthquake that I’m sure you’ve heard about in my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand. Even in this instance, authorities were clearly in two minds about releasing detailed information on the severity of the damage and loss of life as they did not want to “alarm” the public.

In the midst of what is happening in Japan, it’s difficult to say whether people should be informed of authorities’ estimations of the risks of radiation poisoning. And it’s interesting to see that China is the one calling for openness.