Government has duty to respond to public needs

Since the beginning of the year, the Chinese government has received heavy criticism for the lack of responsiveness and transparency in a series of high-profile incidents, including the disclosure of central government agencies’ budgets for overseas trips, vehicles and receptions; the Guo Meimei incident; the Penglai oil spills; the Wenzhou bullet train crash on July 23, and the Palace Museum porcelain dish damage accident. 

In such a context, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council jointly released the “Opinions on Promoting Transparency in Government Affairs and Improving Government Services.” The document has shown the central government’s determination to enhance transparency.

According to the “Opinions,” government entities at all levels should respond to sudden major incidents and hot issues of public concern in a timely fashion; provide precautionary advice and information about incident progress, government measures and the results of investigations, and properly guide public opinion. 

From the perspective of modern politics, high information transparency and timely response to public needs represent a spirit of service. As taxpayers, the people grant the government the right to administer a country. As a service provider, the government should provide objective and comprehensive information about the issues of public concern in accordance with the law and publicly respond to major sudden incidents and hot issues in a timely fashion. These are not only services but also the government’s obligations. 

The ideas and obligations are easy to say, but are difficult to actually put into practice because of various reasons. 

The first reason lies in the backward service consciousness. Although China has abandoned a planned economy in which the government took care of all aspects of life, the governance ideas developed during the planned economy have been maintained. Some government departments and local officials assert that the masses should just accept what they offer and must not make any request or complain. 

The second reason lies in the backwards institutional development. It is not surprising that administrators’ first response to emergency events and hot issues, particularly negative issues, is to cover up or evade them in order to protect their own images or interests. This is universally common at home and abroad. 

The difference lies in whether or not specific and feasible institutional constraints are put in place. Institutions must answers these questions that arise in the aftermath of major events, such as how long the information should be released to the outside, what levels of openness should be applied and how long the information should be updated. Thus, the information disclosure cannot meet the expectations of the masses unless it comes with an institutional basis. 

At last, the most important thing is that supervision power outside the system is insufficient. Although institutional restrictions exist, the amount of information that needs to be made public and responded to is still too much and the nature of it too complex in a period of social transmission with intensive contradictions. And the system cannot deal with it all by itself. 

On the other hand, since the system is not always perfect and plans are sometimes not implemented fully, the information openness is likely to turn into empty words. Therefore, other forces from outside of the system must be brought in to guarantee the successful implementation of administrative transparency. Like what the “Opinions” say, supervision from grass-roots organizations and representatives of the Party Congress must be strengthened. Deputies to the National People’s Congress as well as members of the National Committee of CPPCC, democratic parties, people’s organizations and news media must also fully play their roles as supervisors, and the social supervision should be strengthened too. 

By checking the history of the world, it could be seen that diverging interests, complex contradictions and confrontations are unavoidable in any periods of social transmission. Currently, the emergence and development of new media, such as the microblogging, is also forcing the government to make the information public. After all, making the information public actively is better than looking for excuses afterward, which badly damages the prestige of the government. Therefore, social administrators must firmly make up their minds to strengthen the sense of service, institutional construction and supervision powers so that the idea and goal of an open government could reach the heart of every one of them.

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