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Originally published April 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 25, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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China decree would open records, throw land seizures into dispute

China on Tuesday announced new rules for disclosure of official information that would require local governments to reveal their accounts...

The Washington Post

BEIJING — China on Tuesday announced 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 substantial change in the way Chinese officials work if it were genuinely applied.

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 Party rule began in 1949.

"Governments at various levels are required to give out information which involves the immediate interests of individuals and groups ... 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 is an explosive issue, as thousands of villages have risen up against local authorities over land seizures in recent years.

Typically, farmers have alleged that officials abused their authority to seize the land for resale to developers, compensating the farmers at a low price, charging the developers much higher prices and pocketing the difference. Enforcing a requirement that these transactions be public would help halt such abuses.

But China's recent history is filled with central-government decrees that are not fully enforced around the country.

Because of that, it remained unclear whether Wen's decree would have the power to turn around a tradition of secrecy, particularly where corrupt local officials rely on secrecy to cover collusion with businessmen and embezzlement of public funds.

In addition, the decree laid down potential restrictions for public disclosure, saying any information that affects state security, public safety, "normal economic operations" and social stability should not be revealed. If interpreted by local officials with economic interests in illicit activity, those exceptions may create an area where secrecy could thrive.

But the decree said local groups could appeal to higher authorities if they are refused information they believe they are entitled to.

Wen and President Hu Jintao recently have urged what they call public supervision of government actions.

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