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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 / November 28, 2005



BEIJING

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.

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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."

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.

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