It might be surprising to learn that in China, citizens can submit FOIA requests for government records, files, or data. Actually, the Chinese freedom of information law, Regulation of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information, was enacted 11 years ago, back in May 2008. Stunning as it sounds, we are curious about the effect of this law. How often do citizens take advantage of it? What kind of information do people care most about? Why does the government reject to make the information public? Or why does the court decide to support the applicants? Currently, there is no dataset of FOIA applications available to the public. Hence we turned to the OpenLaw, a dataset of Chinese court case records, and analyzed 5,000 out of more than 13,000 case records related to the Regulation of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information. Under most circumstances, the applicants (citizens or company) are the plaintiff, and the government is the defendant.
The article is composed of four parts.
First, we discover that it is not that hard for citizens to win the case. Among 5,000 samples, the applicants have won more than one-third of the cases. This is not so bad, right? However, winning the case doesn’t necessarily mean the applicants will get the information they want. Only in 178 out of 1,943 winning case records, the court clearly asks the defendant (government) to pass the files to the plaintiff (applicants), or make the information public. As for the rest winning cases, the court either determines the defendant breaking the law, repeals the defendants’ responses, or asks the defendants to write new responses, where the government may find another reason to turn down the FOIA request.
The second part shows what kind of information Chinese citizens apply for the most: land, houses, and everything related. It turns out that, the FOIA lawsuit is a very popular way for people to collect evidence for demolition lawsuit, where the government tries to buy out the land and remove people’s houses while citizens argue for higher selling price and other rights. Also, we calculate the percentage of various court judgments of each kind of information. Public security and Human Resources and Social Security information-related FOIA cases are the hardest to win. Professor Xiao Weibin commented on this pattern, and considered this type of use of the freedom of information law doesn’t contribute to the information disclosure or open data spirit, which shows the usage of the law is still at a very low level. Since personal property information, even successfully acquired after lawsuit, has few reuse value, and therefore is often unuseful for public interest.
After that, we analyze the reasons why the government rejects FOIA requests and why the court supports the government. Among all the reasons, ‘information not exist’ is the most common one, leading to a new question: how can applicants, the citizens who might not be familiar with the government system, prove the information exists? More importantly, what should the government do to inform applicants before they hand in the FOIA request? After all, to build an effective FOIA system in China, publishing one law is not enough. For the Chinese government, there is still a huge mountain to climb, from building up an organized government file system to make sure governments at all levels actually being responsible for the FOIA requests.
Finally, we talk about under what circumstances the citizens can win the FOIA court case. If the government doesn’t reply or refuse to reply to the request, citizens are most likely to win the case. However, if citizens have doubts about the response or the information, the FOIA court might not be able to help them. As long as the government replies with legitimate reasons, they are considered as finishing the FOIA request.