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Cheng Jie is optimistically working toward the passage of freedom-of-information laws in her home country of China within the next four years. It’s a lofty goal, no doubt. But a number of recent developments back home are working in favor of more open government, including a mounting public backlash against official corruption, said Cheng, who’s spent the past year as the Visiting Fulbright Scholar at Yale Law School’s China Law Center. As the only state with a separate agency empowered to order government release of records, Connecticut may be as good a model as there is. Indeed, it’s become a destination for FOI policy experts, said Mitchell W. Pearlman, the Freedom of Information Commission’s executive director and general counsel. At 24 years old, he added, “We’re the granddaddy” of state FOI organizations. Lately, Pearlman said, foreign scholars, including Cheng, have taken new interest in Connecticut’s handling of high-level government corruption. “They’re impressed that [federal prosecutors] put a mayor in prison,” Pearlman said of Joseph Ganim, the once fast-rising, now jailed Bridgeport politico. As a lawyer, Cheng is particularly interested in open information in the courts. She attended a recent Connecticut Bar Association presentation on the subject, and interviewed panelists, including U.S. District Judge Mark R. Kravitz and Superior Court Judge Michael R. Sheldon. Over the past 20 years, an increasingly robust commercial economy — and an entrenched party bureaucracy — have made China fertile ground for government corruption. “Especially within the last five years, there have been provincial leaders and ministers arrested for corruption,” Cheng said. ” … That kind of thing wakes people up, and creates an awareness that we have a right to know.” Another significant force for open government, she said, is the recent informal commercialization of the Chinese media. In the 1980s, newspapers were tightly controlled and largely subsidized by the government. By the late 1990s, the government cut off subsidies and forced media organizations to attract advertisers, readers and viewers. As a result, “some newspapers and magazines have established their reputation for being brave enough to publish government scandals and articles embarrassing to the government,” Cheng noted. Consumer rights is also a growing issue. In 1999, she recounted, a lawyer challenged the Chinese railway ministry’s raising of fares during the Spring Festival, a holiday Chinese people traditionally return to their hometowns to celebrate. In an unusual move, an intermediate court in Beijing ruled that citizens have the right to a public hearing prior to a fare increase. The judges, however, said they lacked procedural rules to order one. On its own, the rail ministry began holding public hearings, albeit before hand-picked public representatives. More recently, China was forced to come to grips with government secrecy during the “severe acute respiratory syndrome,” or SARS, epidemic. Public-interest whistle blowers are becoming popular heroes, Cheng said. One of many factors working against open government is the power of national, state and even local government officials to mark documents “classified” on a highly subjective basis, with little prospect of a challenge, said Cheng, who is returning this fall to Tsinghua Law School in Beijing.

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