The Chinese businessman battled for years to get cities to reveal their budgets, but his quest seemed quixotic in a country notorious for keeping citizens in the dark.
Then China did what would once have been unthinkable — it enacted an open-government policy, and last fall Wu Junliang pressed his case with the Guangzhou city government. This time, to his surprise, he won — big time. The largest city in southern China put budget plans for all 114 municipal departments and agencies online. Astonished citizens flooded the Web site to download documents, causing it to crash by the second day.
It was an eye-opening moment, illustrating the potential of the fledgling Open Government Information regulation to allow Chinese citizens to challenge the government's culture of secrecy.
"We were all very excited. It's the first time in 60 years in this country that a city government has released their budget. And more significantly, they put it online so everyone can access it," said Wu, 51.
Although he says he never set out to be a crusader, his victory was by far the biggest since the regulation took effect nationwide on May 1, 2008, allowing citizens to request information and get a response from the government within 15-30 days.
It's an important step toward transparency for a country struggling to combat corruption and meet the needs of a rising middle class and an economy that will soon be the second biggest after America.
"Clearly, nationwide, Chinese have become increasingly aware that they have legal rights and they are becoming more confident in using them," said Katherine Wilhelm, senior fellow at Yale University's China Law Center.
Recent years have indeed seen greater openness — public hearings on utility rates, for example — but the new disclosure policy could be the most significant in delivering government accountability.
"This is a starting point but it's also a turning point," said law professor Wang Xixin from Peking University. "Traditionally, China's legal and political culture emphasizes keeping secrets inside government. The idea of open government or transparency is quite new. One of the most significant impacts of ... (the new regulation) is that it helps to change that kind of bureaucratic ideology."
State secrets still guarded
Although the change applies to all levels of government, its limitations are also clear. Exempt from release are official state secrets, a category so broadly defined that virtually anything — maps, GPS coordinates, even economic statistics — can be withheld.
In theory, the rule can be used to try to pry any information out of any government agency. But ordinary Chinese know to stay away from subjects that would directly threaten the Communist Party's monopoly on power, such as harassment of political dissidents or anti-government violence in Tibet. And officials can still easily put information beyond the reach of citizens by declaring it a state secret.
Implementation has been slow and uneven. One survey of 30 provinces found that more than 60 percent had failed the criteria for responsiveness. Even Wu's rare success may not be a total victory — some question whether Guangzhou's budget numbers are complete.
Still, experts say the new measure could be far-reaching, because it helps establish a foundation for broader legal reforms.
The very idea that citizens are entitled to obtain information from their government was electrifying to many. Requests, from the mundane to the politically sensitive, poured in as Chinese navigated new terrain.
A Beijing dog owner wanted to know where pet-licensing fees were going. A Shanghai lawyer sought specifics about China's 4 trillion yuan ($588 billion) stimulus plan. Artist Ai Weiwei asked why so many schoolchildren had perished in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (5,300 out of 90,000 by official count, but the number is believed to be much higher.)
Beijing alone fielded some 25,000 queries and processed about 500 formal requests in the first couple of months. Many dealt with individual interests, such as property disputes, urban housing demolitions and company restructurings.
Among the first was a query about how much had been collected from tolls on the Beijing Capital Airport Expressway and where the money had gone. The request was filed by Wang, the law professor, who is among a group of legal scholars using the new rule to push open the doors of government.
He got only a partial answer but his effort got extensive media coverage. "We called it a test case," he said. "If we filed, would the government respond? But secondly, it was to let the public know they can do it too."
Shanghai lawyer Yan Yiming is still waiting for specifics on the massive stimulus plan. He filed his third request in January.
"Although a lot of obstacles get in the way, I will stick to it anyway," he said.
Crusader's hobby is budget reform
Wu has been portrayed in national publications as a public interest hero, though his glasses and thoughtful manner make him seem more wonkish than populist.
He spent 20 years in the U.S., and calls himself Julian. Wu got a master's degree in political science from the University of Houston and worked in financial services there. He now heads a financial assets firm in Shenzhen, a boomtown on the border with Hong Kong, south of Guangzhou.
Though he calls it "just a hobby," budget reform has become his passion. He even created a Web site (www.budgetofchina.com) in 2006, the year before he returned to China. Then he heard about the new disclosure regulation.
"I thought, at least I have something to back me up. I found a weapon I can use," he said. "Without this regulation, we had no legal way to ask these questions."
When May 2008 arrived, he and a small band of volunteers sent requests to 36 local governments and to 15 national ministries. Only the Shenzhen city government let him see its budget, but not make copies.
Last fall, he and other volunteers sent another round of requests to major cities and provinces, and within a week came Guangzhou's astonishing response. Shanghai, which initially said no, reversed itself after hearing about Guangzhou's decision.
Cai Dingjian, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said Wu's success highlighted the need for public pressure.
"If we only rely on the law to push for openness and there is no pressure from the citizens, the government probably won't take the initiative to open up its budget information," he said.
For his part, Wu plans to keep pushing for answers.
"There's lots of ways to make society progress. People talk about democracy, freedom of speech, free press, which is all important but sometimes hard," he said. "When you wake up people as taxpayers, it's easier. I pay tax, you pay tax. You should get something from your government. People understand that."