Project description

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.

What makes this project innovative?

1) Open data is more and more mentioned in government policies and public speeches. However, the Chinese freedom of information law, although was enacted 11 years ago, is still seldom mentioned in public discussion. We decided to look into the law that ensures public right to acquire government information. 2) There are no public records of how people acquire information from government and what kind of requests they get. To able to address this issue, we use the court case records, to find out why people couldn't get through with regular requests and had to resort to lawsuits. We found these records can help us get a glimpse of the very extreme usage of the law. The team spent two months decoding the case records into a database for analysis. 3) Freedom of information law, is a distant topic to the general audience. We start the project by telling a story of a retired doctor who sued the local government several times to acquire the document that could prove a medicine a hospital used during an eye treatment she received was unapproved by the State Drug Adminstration. Therefore, the readers can understand the usage of the law can be very personal and useful. 4) Our data analysis unveils a very contradictory fact: even when a citizen wins the lawsuit, he or she may still not be able to get the information wanted. Because the law prioritized at ensuring government's lawful acts, which means responding to data requests within required time, and giving reasons when rejecting the requests. But when the government didn't make enough efforts, the court has no certain obligation to investigate. 5) We tried to show not only what the data tells, but also what the findings mean. To understand our findings, we interviewed professors and lawyers to enhance the interpretation of the topic. For example, we found out the kind of information Chinese citizens apply for the most are land, houses, and everything related. Through Professor Xiao Weibin's interpretation, we understood it shows the usage of the law is still at a very low level. This type of use doesn't contribute to the information disclosure or open data spirit; since personal property information, even successfully acquired after lawsuit, has few reuse value, and therefore is often unuseful for public interest.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

After publishing, the project was republished by sveral stakeholders, getting attention from experts in the open data area. For the general audience, the project was viewed more than 200,000 times on The Paper platform.

Source and methodology

Our data is from OpenLaw, a dataset of Chinese court case records. The team spent two months decoding the case records into a database for analysis, containing more than 40 variables.

Technologies Used

Python, Illustrator

Project members

Manyun Zou, Yasai Wang

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