In recent years, China has adopted a range of measures for information disclosure or “open government information.” This comes as a surprise in an authoritarian system known more for secrecy and information control. Why do authoritarian leaders embrace such mechanisms, and how do state and society actors respond? This Article examines in particular the emergence of environmental information disclosure in China, and makes two main contributions to the scholarly debate on Chinese law and governance.
First, this Article demonstrates how local demand for legal transplant can arise out of diverse (and sometimes competing) societal interests. State, society, and international actors saw in information disclosure law a range of possibilities—the prospect of improved environmental performance, greater accountability to citizens, and strengthened state control. This interest convergence among strange bedfellows has enabled the seemingly paradoxical flowering of disclosure law in China.
Second, this Article unpacks the social effects of information disclosure law in China’s authoritarian bureaucratic governance setting. Where interests are compatible in practice, disclosure has enabled state and society advocacy, and catalyzed new channels for public supervision in environmental regulation. It has also provided a powerful rights-based way for advocates to frame their actions. Yet, for all its promise, information disclosure creates risks for those involved and reveals deep tensions in Chinese governance—between authoritarian and bottom-up approaches to rule, and the overarching policy objectives of social stability and performance. These tensions limit the utility of disclosure in practice, with consequences (for example, weakened state legitimacy and a hobbled environment) for state and society actors alike.