Chinese decry toxic coverup

Chinese media are leveling rare criticism of the slow, secretive response to a toxic river spill.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A 50-mile stew of toxic benzene floated up the Songhua River for 10 days before Chinese authorities acknowledged the severity of what has been the most serious river pollution in recent memory here. Not until the dense mess hit the major city of Harbin last week was it no longer possible to cover up the catastrophe - highlighting a penchant for secrecy that has characterized political behavior here for decades.

Yet in a twist whose significance is still unclear, once the crisis was public, Chinese state media roundly and sharply attacked the fear, sloth, and mendacity that lay behind the coverup.

While no culprits were named in newspapers from Beijing to Shanghai and Hong Kong - pending an investigation by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao - the language was, in Chinese terms, severe. Lies, failure of public trust, unjustifiable - are words and phrases rarely used in state-run media here regarding business and leadership issues. One Shanghai paper even called for a "transparent public information system." A Beijing journal declared, "Those who have lied irresponsibly will certainly be punished severely."

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As of Sunday the benzene, released into the Songhua Nov. 13 by an explosion at a chemical factory owned by a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation, had largely floated past Harbin on its way toward the Russian border. Five days after shutting down the Harbin water system, local authorities declared the "water had reached a standard level" and turned taps back on late Sunday.

But in Russia, authorities are busy helping towns downstream of the spill prepare for when it reaches the country in the coming days. The incident forced Beijing to issue its "profound apologies" to Russia for the expected environmental damage.

China's pattern of official secrecy regarding public catastrophes that impinge on the health and well-being of those beyond Chinese borders is a subject observers here say genuinely does concern China's leaders.

Not only do past cases like secrecy and coverups about diseases like SARS and avian flu in recent weeks call into question China's preparedness for international standards - but there is a hefty domestic political issue for Beijing as well: a widening gap between what might be called "official" and "unofficial" China.

"We are in the midst of a growing gap between official and unofficial views Chinese hold," says one Chinese scholar. "Every Chinese knows what they must think officially. But between that, and what they do think, is a wider gap. This partly explains [cases of local] instability."

This weekend Mr. Wen jetted to Harbin, a city of 4 million that had gone without tap water for three days, to stoke up morale - and to pump a campaign showing that unlike the past, the Communist Party was quickly getting on top of a disaster.

Yet the show of Wen and 300 functionaries moving with alacrity must be weighed against often years of skepticism of local officials, particularly up in northeast China, a former industrial center that has been particularly rife with cases of catastrophic corruption.

"After the big lie about benzene the local people are being told it is OK to drink the water," says one Beijing expert. "And some of these people are simple, and afraid."

In an attempt to alleviate this confusion, radio and television stations in affected areas will broadcast a color-based indicator of water safety - red for unusable, yellow for bathing only, and green for drinking.

Which parties did and did not withhold information is difficult to reconstruct. Obviously, petrochemical officials and some other officials knew within hours on Nov. 13 that some 100 tons of benzene went into the river, following a dramatic pyrotechnical factory explosion that left five dead. Officials in Harbin kept the news silent until the benzene was one day away down the river.

Rumors and partial information suggest both corporate and local officials knew early of the case, and some sources claim the central government was early informed and asked that the news be withheld for reasons of social stability, hoping the scope of the benzene stew could be contained.

Whether the recent sharp attacks on secrecy by Chinese media will bring a freer press or amount to a rollback on the current strict control of political opinion is unclear. Many local Chinese journalists are skeptical. Some say the sharp language is actually a prelude to attacks on individuals, not the system that contributed to the coverup.

"Heads roll not to bring reform, but to prevent bureaucratic change and political reform," says a Beijing based journalist. "I am not optimistic."

In recent years, during the initial phase of exposing crises and coverups, Chinese media are often given tacit approval by officials to go past their normal boundaries. This is often interpreted by foreigners as a new openness in China to media frankness and greater latitude.

During the SARS epidemic two years ago, or the police brutality cases in Guangdong several years ago, the initial surge of stories about how Beijing had covered up a rapidly spreading disease, or how in Guangdong police were regularly picking up migrant workers and shaking them down for bribes, and sometimes beating them to death, was described as a "spring time" for journalists.

Yet months later, editors of the leading papers that broke the stories were sacked or in jail.

Key dates

Nov. 13 - Explosion at petrochemical plant, city of Jilin.

Nov. 21 - Water to city of Harbin cut off; local government cites water supply system maintenance.

Nov. 22 - State media say water could have been contaminated after the blast.

Nov. 23 - Authorities admit very high levels of benzene have been found in the water.

Nov. 23 - Authorities say 100 tons of benzene emptied into the Songhua River.

Nov. 26 - China apologizes to Russia.

Nov. 27 - Taps turned back on in Harbin.

Early Dec. - The spill is expected to hit Russia.

Source: BBC

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