An official in southern China’s Hainan province has the dubious distinction of being the first civil servant to be disciplined for failing to comply with regulations governing information transparency.
The website of the Danzhou Municipal Bureau of Commerce failed an inspection by the State Council, China’s cabinet, last year because it had not updated its public reports on the work done by the department’s leaders and other civil servants in a timely manner.
Government departments are required to provide these documents to the public within two weeks, but the bureau lagged behind, Wang Xiancai — director of the Danzhou government’s online information center — told Sixth Tone.
The regulations state that failure to comply will result in punishment of the department’s leader. As such, Dong Haifeng, director of the Danzhou bureau, received a demerit on his administrative record as well as a warning from the Communist Party. It’s the first time an official has been discliplined for this reason, The Beijing News reported Wednesday.
Wang also said that a temporary employee directly responsible for updating the website has been let go.
The State Council’s spot check of more than 50,000 government websites found that around 13.5 percent of the websites contained “notable problems.” Among Hainan’s 200-some government websites, eight were inspected, and only one was found to be problematic.
In 2014, the State Council began supervising government websites in an effort to improve their quality. In 2016, it shut down more than 20,000 government websites. A report from the council said the percentage of adequate websites had been raised from around 80 percent at the start of the year to 91 percent at year’s end.
The Danzhou Municipal Bureau of Commerce’s website has also been taken offline, with its content — including reports on the price of mutton, new business regulations, and company inspection results — transferred to the provincial and municipal government websites.
“[The failed website] has had a very bad influence,” Danzhou’s Discipline Inspection Commission said in a recent announcement reported by a local newspaper Monday. The municipal commission decided to flag Dong’s case for investigation on Dec. 6, 2016.
It’s unprecedented for a government official to be punished for violating the transparency regulations in this manner. Other provinces that performed poorly in the State Council’s inspections, including Shanxi in China’s north and Yunnan in the southwest, have not held any officials responsible.
“This is progress for the freedom of information in China,” said Chen Yongxi, a postdoctoral fellow on the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty who keeps a close eye on information transparency issues in mainland China. “As far as I know this is unprecedented.”
Chen told Sixth Tone that “currently, the government only supervises the information it voluntarily discloses; citizens’ applications for disclosure are somehow neglected.” Provincial reports on information transparency frequently leave out statistics on information disclosure applications. For example, Hainan’s government failed to include such data in its 2013 report to the State Council.
The Chinese government committed to increasing openness of government information in 2008 to raise public participation in government affairs and combat corruption. But badly built and infrequently updated government websites, as well as sluggish responses to information requests, remain significant sources of frustration for citizens and activists alike.
A survey of 3,000 people in 2013 revealed that 74 percent of respondents think the government’s information transparency practices are “problematic.” Around 83 percent said they believe government officials who do not adhere to transparency standards should be held accountable.
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