By Editorial staff
Published: 2008-05-05

Recent events in Fuyang have struck a great blow to government information transparency rules which came into effect on May 1 2008.

After at least 20 children died within a month due to EV71 infections, local officials have claimed that from beginning they "paid close attention to the epidemic situation; dealt it expediently; discovered it in time; and reported it quickly"-- all of which they said amounted to a temporary victory in the health crisis.

Meanwhile, local officials refuted media criticism that they reported the epidemic situation late and concealed the truth. The otherwise common hand, foot and mouth disease caused by the EV71 virus is not officially classified as an infectious disease that must be reported to higher authorities--thus, they believed they acted responsibly by reporting it to their superiors nonetheless.

In fact, this past month, despite not knowing the cause of the illness, still lacking resources to treat it, and with more and more cases appearing, Fuyang officials informed the public there was no need to worry about the "few" child deaths or fear that other children would be infected. Instead, at kindergartens where students had alredy died, they "prohibitted making careless remarks". Thereafter, even more children were infected after being sent back to school by parents.

But the truth came too late. By April 30, official data showed there were nearly 1,900 children infected and 20 deaths. There were 300 to 400 new cases of infected children every day from April 26 to 30.

Granted, officers did not cover up the situation - they informed higher-level departments in accordance with protocol. But they did leave the public behind. Within one month, panicked Fuyang was rife with rumors about the unknown "strange disease". As children continue to be infected and the death toll mounts, it seems to remain beyond the comphrehension of local officials there.

Certain officials believed the information they had regarding the disease was meant for them and for reporting to their superiors only. Instead of going public, they thought it was their responsibility to remain silent and control public opinion. Recent excuses such as "for the sake of calming the public" and "for fear of unnecessary public panic" are reminiscent of some officials’ stance during the outbreak of SARS.

Five years have flashed by since SARS. Both the public and the government learned from the SARS experience that people’s rights, including the most fundamental rights to live and stay healthy, are illusory comforts without the right to information. Only when information is open can citizens be more independent and strong, and society more stable. The Regulations on Access to Government Information, which finally took effect this May 1 after ten years of research and drafting, prescribes that government should voluntarily publicize issues of direct interest to citizens which demand public knowledge or participation.

Only a few days before its implementation, however, the Fuyang case was a slap in the face of this-so called "sunshine bill". The officials' response was a practical demonstration of the Confucian notion that "ordinary people could be made to do what you want them to do, but not know why they should do so".

The freedom to information is a basis of democracy. And yet sometimes this issue surpasses democracy itself, and whether to publicize or cover up, can truly be a matter of life or death.

When describing the outlook of Chinese enjoying democracy, Premier Wen Jiabao once quoted a poem, "if you ask about the hope of China, go ask the thawed land and rivers". Likewise, we expect a green flourishing land and defrosted rivers. But before this scene becomes a reality, we are still challenged by whether or not we can break the ice covering information.