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China vows to promote openness

Far-reaching new rules for disclosure of official information will boost the public's right to know.

BEIJING - China yesterday announced far-reaching new rules for disclosure of official information that would require local governments to reveal their accounts and inform farmers about the finances of often controversial land seizures.

The decree, which takes effect May 1, 2008, would mark a dramatic change in the way Chinese officials work if it were genuinely applied in Beijing and the hundreds of thousands of villages and towns where governments and Communist Party committees make most of their decisions in secrecy.

The official New China News Agency called it a "landmark" decision that makes "the most specific and progressive" changes to China's tradition of official secrecy since Communist rule began in 1949.

"Governments at various levels are required to give out information which involves the immediate interests of individuals and groups, which should be known by the masses, and which explains administrative institutions and procedures," the agency quoted the decree as saying.

The decree, signed by Premier Wen Jiabao, listed requirements to reveal such subjects as local government plans for handling emergencies, the allocation of government expenses, and the results of investigations into environmental threats, public health and tainted medicines.

It also specified that local governments must reveal the terms of land seizures and the amount of compensation paid to farmers who lose their fields.

This issue is explosive, as thousands of villages have risen up against local authorities over land seizures in recent years. Typically, the farmers have alleged that officials abused their authority to seize the land for resale to developers, compensating the farmers at a low price and charging the developers much higher prices - then pocketing the difference. Enforcing a requirement that these transactions be public would help halt such abuses.

China's recent history has been filled with central government decrees that are not fully enforced around the country.

In that light, it remained unclear whether Wen's decree would have the power to turn around a half-century of traditional secrecy, particularly where corrupt local officials rely on secrecy to cover collusion with businesspeople and embezzlement of public funds.