Soil Contamination Data Remains a State Secret Leaving Citizens Uninformed About Potential Pollution Hazards

May 21, 2013

Chinese officials completed a soil contamination survey in 2010, but have yet to disclose to the public the results from that survey. In January 2013, a Chinese citizen requested those results through formal open government information request procedures but environmental authorities refused to release the contamination survey data on the basis that it was a "state secret." Environmental officials reportedly could not release the data without approval from the State Council. The citizen filed an administrative reconsideration request to appeal the outcome, but environmental authorities upheld their original decision.

Chinese officials reportedly have refused to disclose information on soil contamination surveyed during a four-year national project completed in 2010 on the grounds that the survey data is a "state secret" (Dong Zhengwei's Sina blog, 25 February 13) (Dong's blog). Dong Zhengwei, a Beijing-based environmental attorney, submitted a multi-question open government information (OGI) request to the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) on January 30, 2013, (Dong's blog, 2 February 13). On February 20, 2013, the MEP responded to Dong's request by providing some of the information he applied for, but it did not provide soil pollution data from the survey, as that data was designated as a "state secret" (Dong's blog, February 25, PDF document). The refusal prompted some backlash from even state-run media (Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report blog, 27 February 13). Previously, the MEP reportedly told the media several times that it could not release the survey data without State Council approval (Dong's February 25 blog post; China Economic Network via China Transparency, 3 February 13). Dong filed an administrative reconsideration request on February 26, 2013, asking that the MEP reconsider its decision and he received the Ministry's response on May 7. The Ministry upheld its previous decision not to release the information, but Dong reported the Ministry acknowledged that the survey data should be made public (Dong's blog, 27 February 13; 9 May 13).

Ministry Provides Some Information, Holds Back Soil Contamination Data

Dong requested general information about soil contamination across the country, but authorities denied his request for reasons of "stability" and "international image." The day after Dong first submitted his initial OGI application, the MEP required that he submit separate OGI requests for each of his two questions: (1) Data on pollution of agricultural land, grasslands, watersheds, as well as data on any other soil contamination problems; and (2) information about the causes of soil pollution and related preventative measures and information on the methods and basis for the survey (Dong's blog, February 2). Dong reported that the Ministry's response consisted of 22 pages of information and 20 pages of appendices. In its response, the MEP provided Dong with the 2006 notice it issued about the survey, which included some details about the reasons for the survey, its objectives, arrangements, and costs. The MEP also provided him with some material about the main causes and sources of soil pollution, as well as information about soil pollution prevention and control measures. It did not, however, provide soil pollution data from the national survey. The Ministry cited the Regulations on Open Government Information, Article 14, as the basis for not disclosing the survey data. Article 14 states that "[a]dministrative agencies may not disclose government information that involves state secrets, commercial secrets or individual privacy." Chinese authorities passed regulations authorizing them to classify as secret environmental information that they believe will affect "social stability" or "create an unfavorable impression of China abroad." (Excerpts from Provisions on the Scope of State Secrets in Environmental Protection Work, as translated by Human Rights in China, 12 June 07, p. 174).

Limits to Citizen Access to Information

Dong publicly argued that authorities should disclose the information. Dong pointed out that on June 5, 2012, the deputy minister of MEP said that the results of the survey would be made public at an appropriate time (China Economic Network, February 3; Dong's February 27 blog). Dong also noted in the same blog post that according to the Regulations on Open Government Information, administrative agencies should be proactive in making public "information that involves the vital interests of citizens, legal persons or other organization" and should "emphasize disclosure of the following government information. ...[i]nformation on the supervision and inspection of environmental protection, public health..." (Regulations on Open Government Information, arts. 9, 10). Dong told a reporter that "[t]he environmental ministry has been releasing real-time information about air pollution even though the air in Beijing was so bad last month (January 2013). In contrast, soil pollution is a 'state secret.' Does this suggest that the land is contaminated much worse than the air?" (Guardian, 27 March 13). While authorities have not disclosed the extent and degree of soil contamination found through the survey, the Guardian noted official 2006 figures indicated that one-tenth of China's farmland was affected by soil pollution. The full implications for food safety are unclear, although in one recent case linking food safety and soil contamination, Guangzhou authorities reportedly revealed that over 44 percent of the limited number of rice or rice products recently tested contained above standard levels of cadmium (International Herald Tribune, 20 May 13; Economic Information, 20 May 13).

For more information on the Chinese government's role in pollution monitoring, see this CECC analysis, "State Monopoly of Environmental Quality Monitoring and Reporting: State Secrets and Environmental Protection" (21 August 12). For more information on transparency in the environmental sector, see Section II—The Environment (pp. 117–118) in the CECC 2012 Annual Report.