China will no longer regard natural disaster death tolls as a state secret, reversing a practice that has been standard for years. The Chinese government describes this switch as part of an effort to improve transparency. However, the government continues to maintain tight control over information most other countries consider public.

Official news media report China will declassify figures and documents regarding natural disasters. The report explain that the move will help disaster prevention and relief work, and will also help build a transparent government.

Normally, China announces death figures from disasters such as earthquakes, flood, and typhoon through government agencies, or through official state media. Yet, in the past, not all natural disasters were reported or casualty figures were understated. For instance, the famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s - the Communist Party still hides the death toll, believed to be near 20 million.

"In China, the state controls all the information flow, including disasters, and accidents, even social events," said Daniel Ping Yu, a research fellow with the New York University School of Law. "The purpose of keeping the information is to prevent the people from knowing it, to keep the social stability."

Despite the decision to declassify information on natural disasters in China, it is unclear whether the move will cover major disease outbreaks. Mr. Yu says severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, should teach China a lesson.

When the disease appeared in southern China in late 2002, China kept it a secret - and as a result, the SARS virus was able to spread throughout the country and across the world. More than 800 people died, the vast majority of them in China, and the country's economy suffered because travelers avoided the region.

"When SARS outburst in China, initially the government tried to keep this as a state secret, which resulted in a huge disaster in most part of China," said Mr. Yu. "Then, they find out information is important for the public. Not only important in the sense of people's rights to know, but also the sense of preventing social disasters."

A World Health Organization representative in China, Henk Bekedam, stresses the importance of giving out accurate information about any outbreak.

"Information in the beginning is absolutely crucial, is not only important you know that there is a new disease but also to understand the extent of the disease," he said. "One thing we know so clearly from SARS that diseases don't respect borders. Disease in one country instantly is a threat to another country."

International human rights groups have often criticized China for its hazy definition of state secrets - which can include such figures as gold reserves, and regulations regarding journalists - matters most other governments consider public.

Many say China often manipulates secrecy and subversion laws to jail critics. In recent years, several journalists have been jailed for reporting material Beijing did not want out. And it took steps to silence a doctor who spoke to news reporters and foreigners about the SARS outbreak. Some researchers working for overseas universities also have been arrested as spies because they published information overseas that already had been published to Chinese academics.