The Impact of National Policy on Developing Information Infrastructure Nationwide:
Issues in P.R. China and United States

Yanquan LIU
Doctoral Student
School of Library and Information Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison


Information policies established in the past decade have become an integral part of today's national public policy and legislation system. To cope with issues and problems arising as the result of information needs and information flow, many nations are facing challenges in the national policy making. How should a political mechanism be used to handle and develop information activities within a nation's boundary as well as in the international scope? What are the best countermeasures to maintain leadership or to promote competitive capability for national socio-economic growth with the information technology and services' power? This paper will have these questions as probes to explore what are current national policies dealing with the social issues of information in the U.S. and P.R. China. The discussion is based on the literature in both English and Chinese. Similarities and differences in roles and impact of national information policy (NIP) between the two countries are addressed. However, the paper will focus on the current conditions and related background in the two countries in the development of information industry and development of national information infrastructure (NII).

Countermeasures for Developing a Nation's Information Activity Power

Entering the 1980s, many countries realized the importance of NIP in developing a nation's information industry and national productivity and competitiveness. The level of information technology and services has been a significant measure of a country's comprehensive power. Developing and possessing a high level of information technology and information services in a nation have become a core concern and issue for national information policy makers.

In the U.S., increasingly, the executive leadership and parliamentary bodies are called upon to establish new guidelines, standards and mechanism for coping with the advent of the astonishing technological systems. National Research and Education Network (NREN) was introduced by Congress in the late 1980s. As the single most important information policy and management issue, the NREN "aims to achieve national goals by improving the nation's electronic communication infrastructure and encouraging the development of more electronic information services and resources". Its fundamental goal is to establish an "around-the-clock", high-capacity and fiber optic network that will link and broaden access to supercomputer centers throughout the Unites States (McClure, 1991).

To maintain leadership in information industry, the Bush administration listed the High Performance Computing and Communication (HPCC) program as one of the three major research and development (R&D) programs and invested $638 million in it in 1992. The Clinton Administration put forward a so-called "Super High Speed Information Highway" program to further the work in the high performance computing and communication program. In 1993, $802 million had been put aside for it in the federal budget. In the president's vision of a vastly broadened telecommunication network, government helps users online, and companies build the rest (Mills, 1993).

To build up its own national information infrastructure, the Chinese government started to pay attention to the development of information industry since the early 1980s. The implications of information industry for the four modernizations [1] and the boosting of the national economy were promoted into the important national strategic plan. Macroscopic policy environments for developing the information infrastructure have been continuously improved. The paramount leader Deng Xiaoping gave an important instruction in 1984: "Tap information resources and serve the four modernizations." President Jiang Zemin emphasized repeatedly that "Each one of the four modernizations depends on informationalization." These statements laid down bases for making countermeasures to responding to the global information challenges.

Both the U.S. and China have established mainstay strategic plans for developing national information infrastructure. The strategies are strongly influenced by their own territorial situations and socio-cultural environments. It is necessary to know the background and the development of national information policy in the U.S. and China before discussing those information policy issues and problems.

Background and Development of NIP in the U.S.

The U.S. has a mature set of public laws for information, established as early as its constitution. During the past 200 years, Congress has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to use its legislative power in service to the information function (Forum, 1989). Horton's Understanding U.S. information policy, the infrastructure handbook introduced most major information policies up to 1982.

With the age of information emerging, information policy became an important part in Congressional public laws to control information flow. The committees and members performed more responsibly with each passing year regarding those issues in information policy making and the many applications of related technology. Commencing with the 95th Congress (in 1977), for example, the number of public laws dealing with information policy and technology has exceeded 300 bills and resolutions (Chartrand, 1989). The breadth of coverage represented by this legislation was divided into nine major national information issues [2]. The following Congresses sample of public laws related to information policy included Telecommunications, Broadcasting and Satellite Transmission (100 Congress), Library and Archives policy, Computer Security Act, Computer Matching and Privacy Act (101 Congress), and high computing communications (102, 103 Congresses).

The principal laws embodying federal information policy in the U.S. are the First Amendment to the Constitution, The Copyright Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act and Title 44. The Title 44 contains the federal printing laws and the provisions concerning distribution and sale of public documents; federal records and archives management; and coordination of federal information policy.

The "Paperwork Reduction Act" of 1980 was seen as a way for the government to cut down on burdensome paperwork, improve efficiency, use effectively the information it generated, and reduce the costs in managing its information-related activities. In order to comply with the provisions of the Act, the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) newly created Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), in 1985, issued Circular A-130 "Management of Federal Information Resources". This Circular deals with:

  1. information collection;
  2. information sharing;
  3. economic and cost considerations; and
  4. information dissemination, distribution, and publication.
This Act is for developing federal information resources dissemination (Morton,1990).

"Principles of Public Information" was a major federal policy document adopted by the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) in 1990. The document was based on the concept that "public information is information owned by the people and held in trust by the government" and that the people must have "open and uninhibited access" to public information (NCLIS).

In 1992, a presidential initiative, entitled High Performance Computing and Communications (HPCC), was launched, aiming at securing America's predominance in high performance computing and related communication technologies. The initiative was one of five initiatives coordinated by the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (FCCSET) with nine federal agencies. The goal of the initiatives is threefold: "extend U.S. technological leadership in high performance computing and computer communications; provide wide dissemination and application of the technologies; and spur gains in U.S. productivity and industrial competitiveness." Two objectives of the program are "to implement by 1995 a tera-ops (10~12 operations per second) computer and a skeletal gigabit (10~9 bits per second) National Research and Education Network." Because of the importance of the HPCC program to the national well-being, especially its potential implication for industrial competitiveness, the program has received wide attention in the nation, even in the world. The HPCC program is believed to have significantly accelerated the advancement toward a digital information society (PCAST, 1992).

In early 1993, President Clinton formed the Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) to articulate and implement the Administration's vision for the NII. The IITF was organized into three committees: the Telecommunications Policy Committee, which formulates Administration positions on key telecommunications issues; the Committee on Applications and Technology, which coordinates Administration efforts to develop, demonstrate and promote applications of information technologies in key areas; and the Information Policy Committee, which addresses critical information policy issues that must be dealt with if the NII is to be fully deployed and utilized. In addition, a Security Issues Forum assesses the security needs and concerns of users, service providers, information providers, State governments and others. A Working Group of Intellectual Property Rights was established within the Information Policy Committee (Lehman, 1994).

Agenda for Action presented in the White House in 1993 was the first comprehensive statement of the Administration's visions and goals for the U.S. National Information Infrastructure. The purpose of the plan is to promote the use of networking and computing technologies to give Americans unprecedented access to information and communication services. Since then, the Clinton Administration has given a top priority to the creation and development of an NII. This seamless web of communication networks including computers, televisions, telephones and satellites will forever change the way we live, learn, work and communicate with each other both here in the U.S. and around world (Brown, 1994).

Background and Development of NIP in China

Unlike the U.S., the legislative system in China is relatively young and under continuous improvement. The first national information policy, "The Scheme for Carrying Out Science and Technology Information Work", was issued by the State Council in May 1958. This scheme resulted in the establishment of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China (ISTIC) and several local science and technology information centers. With ISTIC as the national science and technology information center and supported by other information institutes under various ministries, a national science and technology information network was thus formed. Following the scheme, a national conference on science and technology information was held in 1958, which proposed that the guiding principles of information service be "extensive, fast, picked, and accurate" (Wang, 1986). The National Working Conference on Science and Technology Information (NWCSTI), held every three to four years by the State Science and Technology Commission (SSTC), is a major national information policy sector. Many important provisions, standards, and guidelines, as well as decisions regarding the national information technology and services were decided and launched from the conference.

Systematic investigation of national science and technology information policies in China started in 1985. Based on a number of investigations, the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Guidelines on Information Policy, and a series of meetings of experts at home and abroad, the National Science and Technology Information Policy in China was drawn up and issued by SSTC. The document covers both the development of the nationwide science and technology information system and the establishment of the document support system. In order to make the information policy more practical, the contents of the document were categorized into these subjects: compilation of information retrieval tools, information technology, information transfer and circulation, increase of the marketing role, and expansion of information services. Other aspects covered by this document included user studies and training, international exchange and cooperation in information profession, research on information theory and methods, growth in the number of science and technology information personnel, and science and technology information administration (Chen, 1993).

The "Patent Law", one of the principal public laws for information in China, came into effect on 1 April 1985. It protects three kinds of patents: patent for invention, utility model and design. By the end of 1991, the China Patent Office had accepted more than 210,000 applications and granted over 86,000 patents. The Chinese patent information system includes the Patent Documentation Service Center which functions as a depositing, copying and service center providing services for the general public apart from patent examiners, 20 patent information divisions in provincial institutes of science and technology information and 64 Chinese patent document depository libraries (Qi, 1994).

In the eighth Five-Year Plan (1991-95), the "Development of Science and Technology Information" has put into effect. The general goal of the plan is basically to meet information needs of the development of economic construction and science and technology up to 1995. The objectives include furnishing the science and technology information system, establishing an information research and decision-making consultation system, and monitoring key technology and developing strategies according to the needs of society (Chen, 1993).

The Sino-US agreement on the protection of intellectual property rights has been established and will provide strong protection for all the intellectual products of both U.S. and Chinese companies.

Trends and Issues of China's Information Activity

Compared with the U.S., the major problems impeding the development of Chinese information industry and services, according to Liu Zhaodong, Director of ISTIC, and other researchers, may be summarized as follows:

  1. Information processing has poor foundation and stays in a small scale. China has not invested a great deal in the infrastructure of information systems. "The newest super computer, for instance, the Galaxy-II emulating computer, now reaches 1 billion operations per second," while in the U.S. super-gigantic computers with a capacity as powerful as 1 trillion operations per second are under design. While China had about 800 databases that were relatively viable up to 1992, the U.S. had about 3900 databases and 575 online services nationwide up to 1990 (Campbell, 1993; Wu, 1993). The development of software is far behind development of hardware in China. Because of "the lack of balance between the investment in hardware and that in software, a lot of important computers stay idle." (Liu, 1994) The major part of China's information processing is still manual. Ninety percent of information sources have not been processed electronically. New communication techniques and technologies, such as the online public access catalog (OPAC), electronic mail, electronic data interchange and CD-ROM database are still at the earlier stages of development or on a very limited scope.

  2. Information sources are inadequate and of low utilization. The utilization rate of information sources on a per capita basis is two to three orders of magnitude lower than developed nations. Lack of sufficient funding for collection development is a common problem for most libraries and information centers. China only imported $5.57 million worth of books and journals. This amount is even less than that of Singapore ($10.68 million) and India ($9.91 million). The total number of databases in China is less that 1% of the world total.

  3. The information market is still young. The value of information has yet to be fully appreciated, and a reasonable fee charge system for information has yet to be put in place. China's information market is still under-developed. There has not been an effective market management mechanism to handle information products. In addition, quantities of information agencies and qualities of information professionals are still low. As a result, information services and productions are rather slow.

  4. National information policy needs to be adjusted and intensified. There is a negative tendency in national information policy making in China. As Liu remarks, "that is to get satisfaction from those general, macroscopic policies while neglecting to formulate definite and forceful policies and measures to deal with concrete problems in practice." The issues which need to be identified and responded to by the national information policy include: how should the state provide reasonable support to non-profit, social-benefit-oriented information services? What policy should be taken by the State Planning Commission, Ministry of Finance, and SSTC towards building, developing and utilizing national information sources? What is the appropriate relationship between government agencies responsible for telecommunication networks? Should substantial support be given to the database industry at the initial stage by the state or not? In a word, government decision makers have not sufficiently estimated the difficulties and problems in the infrastructure of information industry in general, and of information services industry in particular.

To catch up with advanced world levels and to learn from the U.S. and other developed countries' experiences, experts in China suggested to the government that the central government should formulate development plans and strategies for information industry, to set goals to be accomplished by the year 2000, and to establish a series of related regulations and policies. They called on the government to pay attention to these aspects:
  1. Minicomputers and microcomputers should be given priority, and software industry should be expanding, so as to match China's intellectual resources with the maximum demand in China's market.
  2. Building national communication, public data transmission and multimedia information networks.
  3. Developing database industry and information services to meet user needs both at home and abroad.
  4. Constructing and consummating a number of major information delivery and consulting service centers, and training high quality staff to serve economic construction and other social activities.
  5. Increasing capital investment in information industry, especially in the information service industry.
  6. Intensifying the planning of and the control over the infrastructure of the information services. Information legislation, standardization and normalization should be given more attentions.
  7. Improving intellectual property environment and international cooperation and exchange.

Differences and Similarities

While the U.S. continues national information infrastructure development efforts to build up the information superhighway, China concentrates on its information industry's construction and development to extend and expand information service frameworks. Both countries confront challenges and opportunities in the development of electronic technologies and global information relationships. Both countries have set forth their strategic goals and plans for the new global competition in the information age. These similarities reflect the needs of new global economic development, the pressure of new information and communication technologies, and the demands of national information control and information activity.

With a high level of computer technology and information service systems, Americans are looking for a communication revolution with digital electronic power. Since the information industry really started after China's Open-door policy, China is boosting its information service system with the power of science and technology to continuously pursue its high economic growth and realize its four modernizations aiming at the year of 2000. Therefore, although each country has the same concerns about information infrastructure development, the background and circumstances are different, the efforts to build up powerful information systems are different, and the issues, problems and difficulties that have perplexed policy makers are different.

A major issue for developing the National Information Infrastructure in the US is "how government should work with the private sector to ensure that all Americans benefit from the communication revolution" (Gore, 1994). Bringing both government and private positive factors into play and getting the best cooperation among information policy sectors are critical in achieving the goals of the NII. Another problem associated with the issue is, as the Clinton Administration's program for the NII rolls rapidly forward, the Clinton policy's impact on the public sector is far less clear than it is for the private sector: "How will the NII be organized on behalf of the public service enterprise, which depends totally on information processes to fulfill its obligations and as a result: How will American democratic processes be affected and sustained if the institutions that embody them are changed in substantial ways?" (Walsh, 1994).

Is it necessary for the U.S. to build a completely new NII? Would the public phone network, which includes both local and long distance services and is available to all U.S. households and business, be eminently suitable as of the NII backbone (Gilder, 1991)? The questions on identifying and framing the NII are still waiting for a response. The federal government has been asked to take responsibility for the NII by enlisting appropriate agencies plus experts from various industries to begin the preliminary work in setting up such an infrastructure (Dertouzos, 1991; Hawkins, 1991). Key ingredients for NII suggested by these authors include: flexible transport capabilities, common communications, common servers, and common user interface or interface translation capability. The other issues related to building the information superhighway are intellectual property, computer security, and information resource management.

The Chinese government has realized the importance of responding to the needs of information control and availability. Government is making great efforts to attempt to complete its legislation system. Because there is too much to be done, public laws have yet to cover major issues in information control and flow. The issues have uncovered include information confidentiality and right of privacy, censorship, ethics, central government information dissemination and public access of government information. Publication Depository Law and Library Law, which have been called for years by the public, are still under preparation (Shao, 1995).

Computer and national security have not been placed on the national public policy agenda since computer networks have not fully built up nationwide. Although Copyright Law has been passed for several years, because of poor public information awareness, intellectual property has not been respected as expected. Most of the time, information services could not charge reasonably for what they delivered.

Coordination between government agencies and professional associations have the same conditional problems and issues as those in the United States. National information systems, information resource sharing and management, and information and communication technology development have not been under the control of unified programs or agencies. Similar conferences like the White House Library conference to discuss library service policies in U.S. cannot be found in China. Libraries as a whole have played little role in national information policy making. The role of the Chinese Society of Library Science (CSLS) (established in 1978) is much less than the American Library Association (ALA). Also, similar funding like "Title II-d, Higher Education Act" to support research projects in library and information services cannot be found in China, either. The online information retrieval system, including Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs), is not readily available in most libraries and information centers. Major information processes are still done manually (Guo, 1994).

As the most populated country, the P.R. China (with a population of 1090 million) has a large number of national institutions and a complex structure of information services on which the national policy has to be placed. Of the country's policy problems, much in common with other developing countries, access to foreign information is one that demands serious attention. In fact, foreign information is rather limited in China. Only a small proportion of the world's major publications are housed within some large institutions and libraries (Gray, 1988, 85). Many Chinese libraries have a cooperative arrangement for interlibrary document supply. But that interlibrary loan mechanism is often hampered with limitation in volumes by participants, for many libraries have large gaps in their periodical holdings. Sometimes, shortage of funds can stop or severely curtail the import of foreign literature for some years, and the resulting gaps are often difficult to fill up at a later date. In relation to available funds, literature from abroad is expensive. Moreover, it must be paid for in foreign currencies. And hard or foreign currencies in major Chinese document-supply centers are scarce.


The national information policy is playing a more important role than ever in developing the nationwide economy. At the same time, it reflects a nation's politics. The current world climate has made the U.S. and China face similar challenges and opportunities. With a strong information market place, the U.S. national information policy aims at an information superhighway and a new information infrastructure. China's national information policy is been formed and aiming at the development of information technology and service industries. Both countries have distinct issues and problems. China has more difficulties and a long way from achieving its goal to catch up with the developed country in the development of information industry.

Findings of the comparative study of national information infrastructure between U.S. and P.R. China may be concluded as follows:

  1. Since the two countries have different socio-cultural systems, information policy at the national level should differ.
  2. However, information policy at the national level is much influenced by international environments, circumstances of technology, and political systems. Therefore, the development, concerns and issues of the policy should have some commonalties between the two countries.
  3. Because of different socio-cultural backgrounds, and political and economic systems, information policies in both countries may not be comparable in some aspects.

It would be worthwhile if the similarities and differences were introduced into an understanding of the role and impact of information policy in the two countries' NII development.


[1] Four modernizations refer to: the simultaneous development of industry, agriculture, national defense capabilities, and science and technology. They are often stated as: industry modernization, agriculture modernization, national defense modernization, and science and technology (S & T) modernization.

[2] Nine major national information issues featured in the June/July 1986 Issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information and Science are: 1) Telecommunications, broad casting and satellite transmission. 2) International communications and information policy. 3) Library and archives policy. 4) information disclosure, confidentiality and the right of privacy. 5) Computer security, regulation and crime. 6) Intellectual property. 7) Information technology for education, innovation and competitiveness. 8) Federal information resources management. 9) Government information systems' clearinghouses and dissemination.

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Copyright © 1996 Yanquan Liu.
Submitted to CLIEJ May 20, 1996.