China and pollution14.12. 2005 Politics
IT WAS, insisted a top provincial official, a “white lie”. But government attempts to suppress news of an 80km (50 mile) toxic chemical slick creeping along a big river in north-eastern China have unleashed a torrent of criticism by the country's normally reticent media. No cases of poisoning have yet emerged, but the dangers of a bureaucracy steeped in a culture of secretiveness and divided by internal rivalries have been glaringly exposed. As China found during an outbreak in 2003 of SARS, an often fatal respiratory disease which threatened to spread out of control thanks to an attempted cover-up, these shortcomings risk undermining all efforts to project the country as a responsible emerging power. On November 26th, the foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, was shown on television apologising to Russia, whose border city of Khabarovsk the pollution will reach soon (see map in article). But for nine days after the slick was generated by a factory explosion, China had made no move to warn its neighbour. Although some observers hoped at the time that SARS—the first big crisis faced by the then newly installed leadership of President Hu Jintao and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao—would encourage greater openness by government officials, little has changed. After the accident, at a petrochemical plant in the north-eastern city of Jilin on November 13th, sent 100 tonnes of poisonous and potentially cancer-causing benzene and nitrobenzene gushing into the Songhua river, local officials admitted five deaths caused by the blast but denied that the river had been polluted. In the downstream city of Songyuan, officials partially shut down tap-water supplies drawn from the river as the slick approached. They said nothing about pollution—only that “pipe repairs” were needed. Luckily, however, most of the city's water comes from wells. Five days downstream, however, lies Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, which largely depends on the river for its water. Heilongjiang and its upstream neighbour, Jilin province, to which Jilin and Songyuan cities belong, have long bickered over pollution control on the dirty Songhua river. This inter-provincial rivalry may have exacerbated the problem. The Jilin authorities did not notify Heilongjiang of the threat until the slick reached Songyuan, five days after the explosion. But officials in Heilongjiang were nervous that the news might spark panic among their capital's residents, according to state-owned media. Two days before the slick reached Harbin, they announced that tap-water supplies in the city would be suspended, but as in Songyuan the reason given was “maintenance”. A few hours later, the city changed its mind and gave the real reason. But it was not until November 23rd, as the chemicals reached the city, that the State Environmental Protection Bureau in Beijing broke its silence about the disaster. The prime minister visited Harbin on the 26th, where he promised a full investigation and ordered timely reporting of the slick's progress. Also that day, China finally got round to briefing UN agencies in Beijing. China's handling of the crisis does not bode well at a time of unease at the possibility of bird flu—several outbreaks of which have occurred in China—turning into a human pandemic. China has moved aggressively to contain outbreaks of the virus in recent weeks. But bureaucratic tussles between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health, as well as the pervasive tendency of local officials to cover up bad news, could make surveillance dangerously difficult.