Very interesting, and very encouraging (if, of course, they don’t get into trouble for it).
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.”
Is it a turning point? Another pseudo-turning point, like SARS? Just a one-time fluke? Or maybe a prelude to scapegoating some lowly officials while the higher-ups walk away? As always, we’ll have to wait and see. But once more, it’s good to see the media expressing outrage over the incompetence of their boss, the government.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.