A large number of retail businesses in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, have suspended operation due to speculation of a crackdown and heavy fines over unregulated business practices. Businesses in other cities in the province have also been affected. Local authorities in Shenyang have taken action to clarify the situation, promising to investigate excessive inspections and fines.
It is expected that business will return to normal when more official information is released. But the fact that small businesses chose to believe that fines were being levied to collect capital for a provincial sporting event shows how lacking in credibility the government is. Officials' credibility is even lower than that of the speculation.
Several recent high-profile issues are all related to the government's credibility crisis. It has become the weakest link in officials' efforts to improve governance. It may trigger more incidents in the future.
Improving governments' credibility cannot be done overnight. It requires more than a campaign by a few officials. When information flows so quickly via the Internet, all officials are lumped into one group. Isolated cases can cause damage to the overall system. But when a public incident happens, it also presents an opportunity to fix the problem.
In several recent cases, governments have responded actively to public opinion. When rational criticisms emerge, governments are more likely to accept them and make the necessary adjustments. Officials are moving quickly to refute rumors, helping authorities regain the initiative in handling the issue.
For government agencies, building credibility is more about being honest than being good.
It is difficult to be a good government everywhere today. The Chinese public is judging its governments according to higher standards. All kinds of flaws can be easily spotted. Local authorities will appear to have more problems. Honesty should be the principle of governments when it comes to communicating with the public. Maximum transparency and a candid approach will help rebuild governments' image in the long run.
The public's living standards are rising quickly. Complaints will always be there, but it will not affect rational judgment. People will be able to see, despite all kinds of imperfections, that their lives are better today than they were yesterday. Tomorrow will likely be even better.
In Shenyang's case, official information came too late to halt the spread of speculation. To officials, speaking honestly may have its risks, but it is safer than telling lies.