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At a conference hosted jointly by Peking University Law School and the Carter Center, ex US-President Carter, as reported recently by freedominfo.org,  a highly recommendable information source on access to government information by the way, encouraged the Chinese government “to take critical steps toward institutionalizing the right to information, including reviewing the experiences to date under the current Open Government Information regulation and developing it into a more powerful legal regime with the statutory strength of a law.”

What these “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Open Government Information of April 5, 2007, effective May 1, 2008” are about, how and why they came into existence and what is keeping them alive, is described in Weibing Xiao’s book. According to Xiao, a Professor of Law at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, the fight against corruption did not cause this development, but rather administrative problems with managing secrecy led to first tentative research and policy initiatives for greater transparency. These initial steps were then encouraged by an improved information flow environment in which – also in part due to technological developments – information exchanges increased between administrations and between citizens and administrations. Xiao’s account suggests a push-model of government information, one which while being encouraged for all levels of government seems to be particularly vital on the local level, where it is supported by long-standing and far-reaching administrative reforms.

Beyond this historical-analytical account I recommend the book for four reasons:

The book provides a highly readable account of how sensitive legal-political subjects – sensitive because they are perceived as overly dependent on Western concepts of the democratic law state – find their way into Chinese research agendas, how they are challenged and how they eventually legitimize themselves. The reader interested in public law will note – perhaps with some surprise – the importance of the Chinese Constitution and administrative law reform in this context.

Secondly, while it is obvious that a lot remains to be done in China, the account also serves as a mirror for the historical dependencies and shortcomings in those countries that might see themselves as champions of access to government information. Following the arguments and counter-arguments in China, readers will recall similar debates in their own countries, including references to cherished historical practices of secrecy in the past. Xiao’s quotation from Lao Zi (老子) in this context “People are difficult to govern when there is too much knowledge”(民之难治, 以其智多 (P. 29.) may still reflect the thoughts of many government officials here when they are faced with transparency requests.

The third reason for recommendation goes well beyond the subject proper of the book: In his analysis of the Chinese situation the author makes constant references to information flows in society, their structures, their impact on social and political developments and to the importance of how and with which objectives to address them by regulation. This is information law properly freed from the appearances of technology. And this is why Xiao’s book belongs in the Cyberlaw section: We still have to make substantial efforts to discover what is accidental about technology and what is the essence of information and its flow. Reading Xiao and his account of the Chinese developments we get a critical assessment of some of those approaches. While not yet providing a detailed methodology himself, he encourages us to look more closely at what law does to information flows.

Let me add a fourth argument, a puzzling one perhaps, based perhaps even on a cultural misunderstanding, but so intriguing for someone like me to whom English – as to Professor Xiao – has not been the first language. Coping with a second language limits the capabilities you may have in your first language to hide behind the flash work of oratory. You are forced to state your case simply and argue it closely, point by point. If then it is done so elegantly, economically and intellectually pleasingly, as by Xiao, it does make refreshing reading. – This, by the way, is the reason why I prefer to read German philosophers in their English translations.

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Cite as: Herbert Burkert, From Behind the Great Wall: FOI in China and – About Method, JOTWELL (March 18, 2013) (reviewing Weibing Xiao, Freedom of Information Reform in China: Information Flow Analysis (Routledge, 2012).), http://cyber.jotwell.com/from-behind-the-great-wall-foi-in-china-and-about-method/.