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May 23, 2017

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China's transparency dilemmas

Reading the Chinese official press every day, one gets the impression that China is the most powerful nation on the planet (after the United States of course); its leadership can dictate the agenda to its neighbors, friends (very few) and foes alike.

The last encounter between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping was symptomatic. The meeting of the Big Two was to be "relaxed": no stiff protocol, no long speeches, no ties, not even a formal agenda. But Obama had in mind the Chinese hackers visiting the Pentagon's and other U.S. government Internet servers and stealing American military secrets. He had decided to corner Xi on the subject.

Xi obviously denied any wrongdoing from China. The cyber-security issue needed to be resolved in a "pragmatic way," he said. China, too, was victim of cyber attacks.

The previous night, Edward Snowden had appeared on the world stage. Suddenly, it was the pot calling the kettle black, especially as Snowden suddenly emerged in Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region of China. China can't be put on the mat so easily. There is, however, another side to the coin, because China is today caught in a dilemma.

Whether it is pollution, dissidence or corruption, the Middle Kingdom faces massive problems and has only the Party to solve these thorny issues. For the leadership, the question is: should repression (like in the bad old days of Mao Zedong) be used or new ways explored?

Beijing is vacillating between reforms and repression.

Over the Chinese New Year, this dance of uncertainty appeared upfront. China unveiled new rules asking party officials not to cover up what should be publicly available information. The Communist cadres often use the excuse of "state secrecy" to scuttle open discussions on the political future of the nation.

The latest move is seen as a step towards greater transparency. Reuters explained: "China has notoriously vague state secret laws, covering everything from the number of people executed every year to industry databases and even pollution figures, and information can be retroactively labeled a state secret."

The news agency quotes the detention of an Australian citizen and three Chinese colleagues working for the mining giant Rio Tinto "for stealing state secrets" during the course of tense iron ore negotiations in 2009.

Xinhua now says that government departments "must not define as state secret information which by law ought to be public," affirming, that "it is an effort to boost government transparency."

The new rules state that "the scope of what is secret should be adjusted in a timely manner according to changes in the situation." Adjustable criteria!

In the meantime, Xu Zhiyong, a law lecturer at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications has been sentenced to 4 years in jail. In early 2012, the pro-democracy activist dared posting on his blog an open letter to the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) general-secretary Xi Jinping condemning corruption and injustice.

In May 2012, Xu founded the New Citizen Movement to promote social equality and a fair legal system. He also demanded that party officials disclose their financial dealings. Party authorities immediately saw this as a threat. Xu's organization collected 7,000 signatures which were officially submitted to the National People's Congress. It requested that members of the powerful Central Committee disclose their assets. Xi Jinping and his colleagues, though they pretend to fight corruption, did not like it.

Xu Zhiyong knew about the consequence of his fight; in November 2012, he declared: "For the world to become a better place, someone has to pay a price." Now, he will have to fight from jail.

Not only is the country in transition, but the leadership is not sure which direction to take.

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