Free Access to Government Legal Information in China: A Path Full of Hopes and Thorns

The year 2013 marked the five-year anniversary of the enactment of the People’s Republic of China’s (“PRC”) first national Open Government Information Regulation.[1] China has made significant strides on enhancing free access to legal information since then.

Adopted and enacted by the State Council of PRC, the country’s highest administrative organ, one of the primary goals of the OGI is to protect people’s access to government information.[2] Ever since the OGI became effective, hundreds of administrative agencies on both national and provincial level have issued regulations and implementation measures and made the government information available to the public. By the end of 2013, the central government and the governments of the thirty-one provinces have made important laws and regulations available online through official government portals.

Legislatures and courts, though not governed by the OGI, have followed the same trends. Both the national and local People’s Congresses have made national legislation available on their official government websites. The National People’s Congress (“NPC”) recently launched a browseable and searchable database that contains laws and regulations at both the national and provincial level throughout the entire PRC. The NPC also launched a database that contains laws and regulations in many key areas in English. The Supreme People’s Court also makes selective judicial decisions of both national and provincial level courts available at its official website. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate website links to the NPC’s Laws and Regulations Database.

While the developments are promising, issues and barriers should not be ignored. Unlike many countries[3], freedom to information is not, at least not explicitly[4], protected as a fundamental right by PRC’s Constitution. Without fundamental support from the Constitution, it can be very hard to justify information disclosure when the interest of disclosure conflicts with other interests. Furthermore, the OGI is only an administrative regulation with limited power and applicable scope. Lack of national legislation protecting the interest to free government information can also create issues such as lack of uniformity and comprehensiveness. A close examination of the websites providing access to government information showed that there is a lot of room for improvement. For example, a study showed that many court websites lack uniform and effective indexing and searching functionalities for users to retrieve cases.[5]

What are the implications to us in the field of foreign and comparative law? First, the fact that more and more China’s government information especially legal information is being made available online will definitely benefit legal researchers and legal information professionals both inside and more importantly, outside China. With a large amount of Chinese primary legal material available online for free, researchers can expedite their legal research process with lower cost. Second, being fully aware of the limitations, quality, and availability of information provided through these free governmental websites can help law librarians make more informed decisions in terms of acquisition and providing effective and valuable research and reference services for Chinese law.

                                                                                                Alex X. Zhang

[1] Regulation of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information (“OGI”)  (promulgated and adopted by the State Council, April 5, 2007, effective May 1, 2008) (China) available at

[2] Id. art. 1.

[3] As of 2012, there are about 60 countries expressly “guarantee a ‘right’ to ‘information’ or ‘documents’, or else impose an obligation on the government to make information available to the public.” See Good Law & Practice, Constitutional Protections of the Right to Information, available at (last accessed December 18, 2013).

[4] The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees citizen’s right to vote and to “criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary.” It can be argued that right to government information is essential for right to vote and right to criticize and therefore, right to information is explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution. See XianFa art. 34 & art. 41 (1982, last amended 2004).

[5] 刘丽君 和 于丽英, 数字化和传统背景中的裁判文书公开机制, 法学, 第8 期 59页至67页(2013)