Mar 26, 2010

Open the Deadlock? Government Transparency and Communication Policies of Chinese Government during Sichuan Earthquake

Jing Ke
Dec, 2009
Course Title: Government Communication

Open the Deadlock? Government Transparency and Communication Policies of Chinese Government during Sichuan Earthquake

At 2:28 in the afternoon of May 12, 2008 the ground in China's Sichuan province shuddered and cracked open. Buildings, roads and lives were torn apart in seconds. During the next minutes, tremors of the quake were felt throughout the whole country and reached as far away as Russia, India and Pakistan. With a magnitude of 8.0, the massive earthquake had left nearly 70,000 dead with over 18,000 missing
[1] and about 5 million people (most of them poor and elderly villagers) homeless[2] (though the number could be as high as 11 million[3]), making it the 19th deadliest earthquake of all time.

Eighteen minutes after the disaster, at 2:46 in the afternoon, the official press agency of Chinese government Xinhua News Agency first publicized breaking news of the earthquake on its website. Fourteen minutes later, at 3:00 in the afternoon, the major state television broadcaster and mouthpiece of the government China Central Television (CCTV) started a 24-hour live broadcast of the disaster on both CCTV-1 and CCTV-News channels. At the same time, most of the mainstream media in China (newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, magazines) as well as new media (websites and cell phone news, etc.) began to report the earthquake. According to Asian Weekly magazine, after the earthquake, CCTV had sent over 160 reporters to the disaster zone, and they were doing their job with the support of all the provincial TV stations in China. The quantity and quality of news broadcasting on the earthquake “break the record in Chinese news reporting history”

Besides domestic media, seniors in Chinese central government also had a quick response to the unexpected cataclysm. Ninety minutes after the earthquake, Premier Wen Jiabao, who has an academic background in geology, flew to the earthquake area to oversee the rescue work
[5]. Soon afterward, the State Council initiated an emergency contingency plan to deal with the entire rescue, settle and rebuild work after the earthquake. In order to communicate with the public effectively and publicize the latest information of the disaster, the central government disseminated the information primarily via three channels:

State-owned domestic media (mentioned above)
Press conferences and the Chinese government’s official web portal
Overseas media and independent journalists facing the foreign audience

Such is the profile of Chinese government’s reactions on information communication after the earthquake. Based on the event, the question I focus on in this essay is: Can government achieve pure transparency in its communication with the public? If not, then to what extent can the transparency be?

On May 1, 2008, just eleven days before the earthquake, the Regulation on Publicizing Government Information of People’s Republic of China was officially promulgated and came into force in China. From the political science perspective, this regulation, if effectively implemented, would have a far-reaching impact on Chinese society. As the insiders have already revealed, once issued, “it will commit all government organs to publishing most of the information which until now has remained locked in office desks”
[7]. In other words, this regulation unprecedentedly represents the principle of citizen’s “right to know” and asserts government’s obligation on disclosure of information about public affairs.

It is quite fair to say that the Chinese central government’s responses and reactions, including their attitude to state-owned and overseas media on news reporting after the earthquake, have highly, although not thoroughly, revealed the principles of this information publicizing regulation. Comment from the International Herald Tribune and other overseas media states that Chinese government’s attitude on the earthquake news reporting is “amazingly open”
[8]. As a matter of fact, compared with the long-established tradition of highly centralized administration, lack of transparency, and state-controlled information publicity as well as news censorship in journalism, the central government of China, when facing the Sichuan Earthquake, is trying out a more open and transparent way to communicate with the public. In today’s global discourse and competition of new public management (NPM), these reactions showed the eagerness of Chinese government and the leadership of China to gradually move the huge bureaucratic machine towards a modest form of “good governance”[9] through the ongoing administrative reforms and innovation.

Before examine the transparency issues of government communication, I’d like to figure out some fundamental elements and definitions of transparency in the field of political science. In the field of political science, “transparency” can be defined as “legal, political and institutional structures that make information about the internal characteristics of government and society available to actors both inside and outside of the domestic political system”
[10], this definition emphasizes the structural measures that create a climate that promotes transparency in government actions. Cotterrell also argued that “transparency is the availability of information on matters of public concern, the ability of citizens to participate in political decisions, and the accountability of government to public opinion or legal processes”[11], focusing on the opening organizational behavior. Finel and Lord at the same time defined transparency as “legal, political and institutional structures that make information about the internal characteristics of government and society available to actors both inside and outside of the domestic political system”[12]. In one word, open administrative procedures and citizen’s access to information and decision-making process are key aspects of transparency.

According to Fairbanks, Plowman and Rawlins, an ideal model of a transparent government communication, the Transparency Model
[13], can be visualized as a three dimensional triangle: The base of this model is a commitment to transparent communication processes, the three sides, or key elements of the model are communication practices, organizational support and the provision of resources[14]. This model can be used to understand how to make the workings of a government or public sector more transparent and how government should interact with the public.

One principal goal of this transparency model is citizen’s access to information, which increases the public’s knowledge on government’s activities and attendance in decision-making process. As Fairbanks, Plowman, and Rawlins argued, transparency in government actions and decision-making processes create an informed public, which is the basic stone of a healthy democracy
[15]. On the other hand, there is a direct connection between government transparency and its accountability. Scholars have suggested that good communication and interaction with the public can increase trust, since open access to information and transparent systems will increase the public's knowledge of government activities. Oppositely, the decline of trust in government is an outgrowth of poor communication between government and its publics, where publics feel that they are not well informed about government actions. The accountability of public sectors is a crucial factor for modern scientific administration, especially in crisis period. The image of accountability and trustworthy of a government would facilitate a more effective and efficient way for policy making as well as undertaking.

It seems Fairbanks’s model has perfectly depicted how to create a good, responsible, accountable, and transparent government communication, it represents us a vision of “government transparency” in liberal democratic political systems. However, pure transparency only establishes itself on the conceptual and theoretical side. On the practical side of government administration and public management, pure transparency in government communication is no more than a “cheerful willingness”. More accurately, I would argue that pure transparency is neither realizable nor advisable on the empirical level of government communication.

Fairbanks and his colleagues’ research
[16] has shown that, nowadays leaders and communicators in government have clearly recognized that the openness in the communication process of federal agencies is one of the basic requirements of a democratic government. However, we have spent most of our class throughout this semester discussing the un-transparent practices of government, such as strategic truth, plausible deniability, democratic propaganda and integrated circuit, etc. In other words, we were digging out the “ugly truth” of public management and the nature of political world: How to maintain a controlled or at least translucent communication under the mask of being transparent? From my perspective, this question is irrelevant with the political system, the ideologies, or the extent of democracy of a country. As a matter of fact, the issue of government transparency might be a never-ending dilemma for government leaders and social servants everywhere in the world. At least till now, we haven’t seen any political entity solve this problem perfectly.

In the context of Canadian parliamentary political system, as well as other western democratic countries, the un-transparent communication practices I mentioned above widely exist. Especially in the Westminster political system of Commonwealth of Nations countries (UK, Canada, Australia, etc.) which hold parliamentary opposition (multi-party) as a key characteristic and tend to have a more adversarial style of debate and contest between parties. In this situation, the game is all about “winning the power”, which means, the first objective of a government to be elected/re-elected and to stay in power. The competition between the majority and minority in the parliament is so severe that both sides would spare no pains to dig out any tiny mistakes and missteps of each other in order to embarrass and shame the competitor. Consequently, a paradoxical situation is shaped: on the one hand, government passes legislations to facilitate and protect transparency under the hat of being “democracy” (e.g. Access to Information Act and Freedom of Information); on the other hand, government has to control, attain and keep power, pure transparency is not realist -- such is the nature of governance.

Same thing happens in China’s single-party socialist political system. Though the central government has been pushing an extensive restructuring of public sectors for two decades
[17] in order to catch up with the pace of the country’s economic development and integrate with the rest of the world, current situation is still hardly optimistic. The uniqueness of China’s public sector administration and reform are widely known as “Chinese Characteristics”:

Firstly, the country’s leadership has to maintain an ideological correctness. Secondly, the leaders are eager to “learn from the west”, they largely adopt the NPM reforms originating in the Anglo-American countries[18] to accord with the economic reform and to facilitate the economic success. Thirdly, since the world has seen China’s rise in recent years, the central government is bearing increasing pressure from western world to change the governance to be more democratic and transparent, especially after China’s accession to the WTO. Finally, current conditions of Chinese society are rather complicated and the country’s economic development has suffered many growth-related problems[19] (e.g. inflation pressure, income gap, regional imbalance, and unemployment concerns). The Chinese society has also experienced many problems in the areas of school education, public health, public safety, and social welfare, etc. And now they have to face new problems -- the separatist or even terrorist thoughts and activities in the country.

From my perspective, Chinese society is now quite unstable under the superficial quietness and risk may occur (and is occurring) anytime. Based on all the considerations, the central government of China is also facing the dilemma I mentioned above in government communication and cannot achieve pure transparency on administration and information. As a matter of fact, until now China has refused to issue a press law because it might curtail the privileges of Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda department in disseminating information.

Sometimes I feel this deadlock situation quite ironic and I would personally describe it as “good people doing bad things” -- Rationally, everyone in this domain knows that in government communication “greater transparency promotes accountability and better management”
[20] but practically no one can put it into practice. This is not only a phenomenon throughout the western world, but actually the whole political world. Grunig’s two-way symmetrical communication model[21] is a rather amiable belief for transparent government communication, but in contemporary political arena it’s a lofty aspiration.

Personally speaking, I prefer to look at this issue from a more realistic perspective. Thousands of years of human experience tells us that, any existence of government, no matter democratic, republic, communist, dictatorship, or, in history, monarchist and Christian etc., is a monopoly of organized forces. Control is necessary since the so-called “free markets” and “individual initiative” is not always reliable. Numerous historical events as well as social experiments have proved that no matter to what extent a society develops, the rationality of human mind is tend to be over-estimated and public opinion is always easy to be manipulated. Examples are Nazism’s upsurge in post-World War I Germany and the notorious Culture Revolution in 1960s China, as well as other political movements in human history that have agitated the public into fanatical obsession. Moreover, as some ancient Chinese politicians and philosophers believed, dialectically speaking, good social order depends on governance and people’s freedom depends on a certain extent of forces and restrictions. To be honest, I personally disapprove of the political philosophy of anarchism and I agree that a compulsory government is always necessary.

I’m not advocating high-pressure politics here. Pure transparency might be advisable and plausible at a low level of governance in a relatively small region (e.g. municipal government in cities, towns, villages and municipalities). In such circumstances, the population is smaller and the demographic structure is simpler, it is possible for government to hold assembly and to obtain a unifying public opinion and agreement on a given issue or policy. For instance, the municipal governments in Canada may set out some statues named as the Municipal Act, the Local Government Act, the Cities and Towns Act and the like to provide services that can be more effectively handled under local control
[22]. Also, the origins of the term democracy in ancient Greek have represented another good example of pure transparency and direct democracy in politics. Plato claimed that, to achieve democracy, all citizens were eligible to speak and vote in the Assembly, which set the laws of the city-state[23]. As a matter of fact, of the 250,000 inhabitants in Athens at that time, only some 30,000 on average were “citizens”, and of those 30,000 perhaps 5,000 might regularly attend one or more meetings of the popular Assembly[24].

Nevertheless, on a larger scale, for federal government and other types of government in contemporary world, to undertake pure transparency in government communication might cause huge disorder and chaos, and the situation will definitely lose control. Take China’s government communication strategy and activity after the earthquakes for example, though the communications between Chinese government and the public requires honesty and openness to stop rumors and halt panic, the impediments and balancing interest in pure transparency are still easy to perceive:

First and foremost, the central government of China needs to maintain public order and control the situation in the post-earthquake mess. When crisis happen, government sometimes cannot communicate all the facts and must “hide” some part of the truth for the public good. I would personally view this as a kind of obscurantism, which means the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known or a policy of withholding knowledge from the general public
[25]. But it really works in certain context, especially in China where the vast majority of the population is undereducated and easy to overthrow self-control in crisis period.

Secondly, the existing censorship practiced in China’s mainstream media constrains the media’s capacity to report the disaster objectively and independently. As I mentioned above, until now China has no press law and the propaganda department of central government is in charge of all the information disseminated from the mainstream media. As is always the case, the “reportage policy” of the earthquake was sent to all state-owned media in the country soon after the disaster happened in form of official documents through an intranet. Consequently, the mainstream media’s reports have to fulfill the government’s requirement of propaganda and the so-called “guidance of public opinion” (yulun daoxiang).

Last but not least, the ideological conflict between China and western countries and the world’s hostility to China’s recent year’s rise “forced” the central government to withhold information, in order to protect state interest and maintain a good (or at least neutral) national image. For instance, lots of schools collapsed in the earthquake and the bodies of teenagers are, as reported, “Too many to count”
[26], experts on global hazards pointed out that the loss of life could have been significantly reduced using known methods for designing or retrofitting structures in earthquake zones[27] and they named those collapsed buildings “tofu-dregs school houses”[28]. However, government till today refuses to accept responsibility and doesn’t admit that there is any quality problem of the school houses nor publicize the member of death in school collapse. It is probably because to do this will implicate other issues like the rampant corruption and misconduct in Chinese bureaucratic system. – In my opinion the government’s reaction is quite unsophisticated, as one can never solve a problem by cover it up.

Based on the above analysis, I would go to the conclusion that practically speaking, pure transparency in government communication is neither realizable nor advisable in any political context. It is not realizable because government has to win a power, there is no room for pure transparency; and it is not advisable because government has to run, there is still no room for pure transparency. Thus I personally believe that it is impossible to open the deadlock between theoretical and practical side of government transparency, Chinese government’s communication activities after Sichuan Earthquake also reflected this dilemma.

To close the essay, I want to add that the optimistic side of the deadlock needs to be highlighted. Although pure transparency is not realizable in contemporary government communication, the political practice of liberal democratic countries as well as some developing countries like China proves that the citizen’s access to information and government’s transparency is much better than decades ago. The widely adoption of E-Government in modern public management and all the legislations providing the right of access to information and protecting the citizen’s “right to know” guarantee that generally, government information is available to the public. Besides, with the development of public education and the information communication technologies, people are tend to shape more deliberate and considered opinions over public issues and can get information via non-professional media. From my point of view, the rise of today’s civil/citizen journalism may change the existing relationships between government, media and public in “public sphere”, and it will probably bring a more hopeful future of government transparency.

[1] “Casualties of the Wenchuan Earthquake” (in Chinese). 2008-06-08.
[2] Jacobs, Andrew; Edward Wong; Huang Yuanxi (2009-05-07). “China Reports Student Toll for Quake”. New York Times.
[3] Hooker, Jake (2008-05-26). “Toll Rises in China Quake”. New York Times.
[4] Zhang, Jieping. Sichuan Earthquake and Opening of Journalism (in Chinese). Asian Weekly. 2008. issue22
[5] Simon Elegant. China's Quake Damage Control. Time. 2008-05-13
[6] /
[7] Zhang, Junhua. 2005. Good Governance through E-Governance? Assessing China’s E-Government Strategy. Journal of E-Government, Vol. 2(4)
[9] Christensen, Dong, and Painter. 2008. Administrative reform in China’s central government - how much ‘learning from the West’?. International Review of Administrative Sciences. Vol. 74 (3): 351–371
[10] Finel B.I., Lord K.M. 1999. The surprising logic of transparency. International Studies Quarterly. 43: 315-339.
[11] Cotterrell R. 1999. Transparency, mass media, ideology and community. Cultural Values. 3(4): 414-426.
[12] B.I. Finel and K.M. Lord. 1999. The surprising logic of transparency. International Studies Quarterly. 43 (2) (1999), pp. 315–339.
[13] Fairbanks, J., Plowman, K., and Rawlins, B. 2007. Transparency in government communication. Journal of Public Affairs. Vol. 7, Issue 1. 23-27.
[14] Fairbanks, J., Plowman, K., and Rawlins, B. 2007. Transparency in government communication. Journal of Public Affairs. Vol. 7, Issue 1. 23-27
[15] Same as 14
[16] Fairbanks, J., Plowman, K., and Rawlins, B. 2007. Transparency in government communication. Journal of Public Affairs. Vol. 7, Issue 1. 23-27
[17] Christensen, Dong, and Painter. 2008. Administrative reform in China’s central government - how much ‘learning from the West’?. International Review of Administrative Sciences. Vol. 74 (3): 351–371
[18] Pollitt, C. and Bouckaert, G. (2004) Public Management Reform: A Comparative Analysis, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[19] Kuotsai Tom Liou. (2008). E-Government Development and China’s Administrative Reform. Intl Journal of Public Administration, 31: 76–95
[20] The Gomery Commission Report. 2006. Chapter 10. Transparency and better management
[21] Grunig, J.E. (1997). Public relations management in government and business. In J.L. Garnett, & A.Kouzmin (Eds.), Handbook of administrative communication (pp. 241). New York: Marcel Dekker
[22] Municipal government in The Canadian Encyclopedia
[23] Grinin L. E. (2004). Democracy and Early State. Social Evolution & History. 3(2), pp. 93-149
[24] Democracy is people who rule the government directly. BBC. History of democracy
[25] obscurantism. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved December 14, 2009, from
[26] Tania Branigan. (2008). In the rubble of a school, bodies everywhere - too many to count. The Guardian. 2008/5/16 , from
[27] Andrew C. Revkin. (2008). China earthquake brings faulty school design to the fore. New York Times. 2008/05/14, from
[28] Alex Lantier. 2008. "Rising death toll, popular anger in China quake". World Socialist Web Site. May 21, 2008.

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