BETTER GOVERNANCE: The photo shows the gate of the Ministry of Finance, which recently posted its 2010 budget on its official website for public supervision (CFP)
In an unprecedented move, four ministries under the Central Government recently posted their 2010 budgets on their official websites. This move has been greeted with mixed reactions, with some netizens complaining about a lack of details and explanations of different items.
As the first government department to publicize its expenditure information, the Ministry of Land and Resources uploaded a chart that showed expected income and expenditures for 2010 on March 30.
The ministry's total budget is 3.47 billion yuan ($510 million), which according to the chart is then allocated to the categories of foreign affairs, science and technology, social welfare and employment, land resources and meteorological affairs, housing welfare and other affairs. In an attached document, the ministry provides a rough explanation of the purpose of expenditures under each title and reveals the total number of its current employees and retired employees. The most costly function, land resources and meteorological affairs, has been allocated a budget of 2.51 billion yuan ($369 million).
The following day, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development also posted their budget sheets online.
The new practice has been regarded as one of the first concrete steps taken by the Chinese Government to promote governmental transparency and facilitate public supervision of government spending. In December 2009, the State Council, China's cabinet, adopted the National Audit Office's suggestion and announced its plan to have all Central Government departments publicize their budgetary information within the next three years.
In early March, the Ministry of Finance issued regulations on promoting budgetary information openness, urging all Central Government departments to provide timely disclosure of all the government budgetary information stipulated by the Decree of Government Information Openness, which was approved in 2007 and took effect on May 1, 2008.
Premier Wen Jiabao also pushed for Central Government departments to release budgetary information during a meeting on March 23, where he stressed that the government should help the public to learn more about government spending.
"Publicizing the budgets of government departments embodies China's progress in democracy and the rule of law, and demonstrates the country's determination to build a transparent and responsible government," wrote Sun Ruizhuo in an editorial for the Xinhua News Agency.
The move was also partly inspired by the public's growing demand for government information.
The government of Guangzhou City, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, has led initiatives by local governments to release budgetary information. The website of the Guangzhou Bureau of Finance was paralyzed by huge network trafficking and downloading after it posted the budgetary information for all of the city's 114 government organizations in October 2009.
Wu Junliang, founder of the Shenzhen-based Fiscal Budgeting Observation Volunteers, has achieved national fame for actively promoting the transparency of government budgeting. Since 2008, Wu and his fellow budgeting observers have applied to a number of Central Government departments, as well as local governments, for budgetary information. The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Ministry of Environmental Protection have responded by providing their budgets for him.
According to China Central Television (CCTV), Wu said transparent budgeting is a step in the right direction toward better governance.
Wu told CCTV, "We see great hope here. Now the Ministry of Finance and three other ministries have also taken action. It means other ministries and bureaus are soon likely to follow."
But Wu also pointed out that the budgets provided by the ministries on this occasion were not very detailed. They were more like reports of expenditures, rather than proper budget reports. He gave the example of the budget reports provided by the government of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region, which provide details of its staff payrolls.
But Wu also believed it takes great courage for the government to show its budgets to its citizens and submit them to their scrutiny. It also indicates a massive shift in its mindset to the belief that "government should serve the people."
According to an editorial from People's Daily, publicizing government budgets could effectively curb the use of public funds by government officials to pay for private banquets and overseas tours, and the use of government vehicles for private purposes.
The article suggested two ways to improve the practice of budgetary reporting. Firstly, more detailed information on budget items should be provided, such as the listing of sub-categories under major categories. It stated that contents that are too simple and generalized could make budget reports unintelligible to the public, who would then be unable to supervise the government by reading the reports. Secondly, government organizations should try to follow the example of the government of Shanghai's Minhang District, by organizing government budgetary hearings, where citizen representatives can obtain more information as well as debate the necessity of certain expenditure items.