China: Natural Disasters No Longer Secret

China will no longer consider death tolls and other relevant information about natural disasters to be state secrets, an official said Monday, saying the move was aimed at boosting government transparency.

"Declassification of these figures and materials is conducive to boosting our disaster prevention and relief work," said Shen Yon (search)gshe, spokesman for the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets (search).

That marks a major step toward "administering according to law" and "building a transparent government," Shen was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as telling a news conference.

No details were given and it wasn't known what prompted the declassification move, which Shen said took effect last month.

China has recently passed a series of laws and taken other moves to strengthen its legal and regulatory structure and boost government efficiency.

Death tolls from floods, famines and other disasters — natural or man-made — used to be closely guarded secrets. For decades, the government hid the death count from China's worst disaster of the communist era, the 1959-1962 famine in which at least 20 million are believed to have died.

While such information has become increasingly available to the public in recent years, it wasn't clear whether the declassification order covered major disease outbreaks such as bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome.

China was widely accused of suppressing information about the 2003 SARS outbreak, confusing and delaying efforts to contain it before it spread to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and other countries and regions around the world.

China's ruling Communist Party (search) has been imbued with a culture of secrecy from its very beginnings as an underground organization hunted by warlords, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and Japanese invaders.

Even today, the party uses hazily defined secrecy and subversion laws to silence critics and perceived political opponents. The Secrecy Committee itself is a little-known body subordinate to the Communist Party's Central Committee and headed by a top party official.

The current committee chairman, Wang Gang, was quoted by Xinhua in a speech two years ago as stressing the need to "strengthen the building of laws, regulations, and systems on secrecy maintenance."