In Crisis, China Vows Openness

Skeptics see Premier Wen Jiabao's promise of openness as a way of repressing dissent.
Skeptics see Premier Wen Jiabao's promise of openness as a way of repressing dissent. (Color China Photo Via Associated Press)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 5, 2009

BEIJING, March 5 -- In his first online chat with China's 1.3 billion citizens this weekend, Premier Wen Jiabao tried to charm his audience. He talked about advice he got from his mother, disclosed that he no longer has time to cook at home and admitted he was "a little bit nervous" because it was his first time talking directly to his compatriots on the Internet.

The most revealing part of his talk, however, may be what Wen said about government transparency and accountability. "I have always believed that the public has the right to know what its government is doing and thinking about, and the right to criticize and make comments on government policies," he wrote.

It was almost as if Wen were campaigning for reelection, an effort unnecessary in China, where the Communist Party enjoys a monopoly on political power. But as the top legislative body, the National People's Congress, holds its annual meeting Thursday in Beijing, China's leaders acknowledge that these are extraordinary times.

China's economic growth is slowing at an alarming pace and it is facing anti-government protests in some of its largest cities. Wen's online comments reflect the two-pronged approach Beijing is taking toward growing public unease as more companies collapse and unemployment grows.

Even as they continue harsh crackdowns against critics, China's leaders are expanding opportunities for discussion and debate as a way of allowing the country's citizenry to vent without taking to the streets. Academics disagree over whether these are the first tentative steps toward a new openness or whether they are just techniques for suppressing dissent.

"If the government is opinionated and won't listen and communicate with the public efficiently during the economic crisis, it may increase the mistrust of the government, which leads to a big split between government and people," said Wang Yukai, a public administration specialist with the National School of Administration.

According to the text of a speech to China's legislators on Thursday, Wen vowed to "dramatically increase" government investment, beyond what it had already injected, to counter the sharp slowdown in its economy. Wen predicted that as a result, China's gross domestic product would grow 8 percent in 2009, significantly higher than the 6 to 7 percent forecast by outside analysts. Wen also said the government will take measures to boost domestic consumption, increase agricultural subsidies and maintain the stability of its currency. "Neither the fundamentals of China's economic and social development nor its positive long-term trend has changed. We are fully confident that we will overcome difficulties and challenges," Wen said.

Wen also said China was ready to "create conditions for ending the state of hostility" with Taiwan through talks about cross-strait political and military issues.

As China's leaders meet this week to discuss how to get its economy back on track, implement more social welfare programs and raise the standard of living for rural residents, the discussions are expected to revolve around whether the government can do so in a transparent and accountable way.

China is facing pressure from within and outside the party to make sure the money for its $586 billion stimulus package and other programs is spent fairly and wisely. Fourteen high-ranking party elders submitted a letter to President Hu Jintao and the Politburo Standing Committee members at the end of January saying that any details of the economic stimulus plan should be "subject to real and effective democratic procedures" and that media controls related to reporting about the stimulus package should be loosened.

"We are very worried about the possibility of people seizing special power and corrupt officials seeking opportunities for their own benefit, destroying the relationship between the Party and People and stirring social conflict," they wrote. Their call has been bolstered by a request filed by Yan Yiming, an influential attorney from Shanghai, who has demanded that the Ministry of Finance and the National Development and Reform Commission publicly release details about investment sources and funding recipients from the main stimulus plan. Yan's efforts have been widely praised on the Internet.

The official New China News Agency on Monday said that the government will partially yield to calls to open its books -- a significant move for a government that has long considered its budgets state secrets. Also this week, a high-level justice official said the Chinese court system, after months of rejecting lawsuits by parents of children who became sick after drinking tainted milk powder, will begin accepting them.

In the 30 years since China began introducing market-oriented reforms, it has vowed that they would come with a more open government. Last May, the government passed a landmark rule on the disclosure of government information. While the measure was symbolically important, many of its promises have not been met.

"Large amount of contents should have been opened to the public but haven't because some government officials' old concepts were hard to change. It has been a big obstacle . . . [in] improving accountability and transparency," Wang said.

There is historical precedent to justify officials' reluctance to open up. China's leaders are cognizant of how Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy, which sought to provide openness and transparency in government activities, eventually weakened the party in the Soviet Union.

Researchers Wang Juan and Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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