The government tried for days to keep secret the threat posed to the nearly four million people of this city by a chemical explosion and benzene leak that has made the water supply unusable, Chinese news accounts revealed Friday.
The reports, including some from the official Xinhua news agency, suggested that officials here and in Jilin Province, where the disaster occurred 380 kilometers, or 235 miles, up the Songhua River, lied or told only part of the story until they had no choice but to admit the truth.
The explosion at the chemical plant occurred on Nov. 13, but factory officials announced only that the accident posed no threat of air pollution. They denied that chemicals had spilled into the river, the main source of water for Harbin and other communities.
A Shanghai newspaper, the News Morning Post, reported that government officials in Jilin told their downstream neighbors in Heilongjiang Province, home of Harbin, that there had been no chemical spill. But Jilin officials finally told their peers in Heilongjiang on Nov. 19 that there was a problem.
The China Youth Daily reported that environmental officials in Jilin – instead of telling the public – had tried to dilute the spill with reservoir water.
By Monday, officials in Harbin were preparing to shut down of the water supply, but they feared news of the chemical spill would start a panic, the News Morning Post reported. Instead, they announced that they had to cut off the water to do maintenance work on the mains. Rumors then erupted that the government had detected signs of an earthquake.
Enough people panicked that the officials then had to confirm that the explosion had released benzene into the river. But the damage was done.
On Friday, a front-page headline in the Modern Evening Times here stated: “There Will Not Be an Earthquake in Harbin.”
“They were trying to lie and get by,” said Qi Guangzhong, 64, as he walked along the Songhua River on Friday. “The government wanted to hide this.”
I know, when you refer to “the government” in China, it’s not a monolithic entity. And I’m well aware of how this is argued by certain China followers: the ones doing the lying were the local officials, while the central government was trying to correct the lies and take responsible action. I just wonder whether it’s that black and white, as if the “two governments” – local and central – are truly self-contained organizations, one good, one bad. And I also wonder, if the central government thought they could lie about this and get away with it, wouldn’t they? I mean, look at SARS and AIDS. But when you have a 50-mile-wide toxic slick heading for the Russian border and threatening to poison millions of your own citizens along the way, it’s not very practical to lie about it. And don’t forget, as the article points out, it took the country’s environemntal protection agency 11 days to finally speak out about the danger. Maybe truth was seen as the last resort to a situation beyond the Party’s control…?
Update: Well, this must-read article by the great Philip Pan certainly puts a hole in the “two governments” argument.
“All of these problems are caused by the government,” one man growled as he struggled to carry a huge red bucket of water back to his apartment. He began to say more, but his wife cut him off as a local official walked over, loudly praising the ruling Communist Party.
Twelve days after an estimated 100 tons of benzene and other toxic compounds poured in the Songhua River following an explosion at a state-owned petrochemical plant, the party is struggling to contain a political crisis as much as an environmental one.
Daring journalists succeeded in publishing a series of reports on Friday describing in remarkable detail the efforts by party officials to cover up the chemical spill. Among the disclosures was an admission by a provincial governor that officials in Harbin initially lied to the public about why they were shutting down the water supply, because they were awaiting instructions from senior party leaders.
On Friday night, reporters received orders from the party’s central propaganda department to stop asking questions and go home. All state media were told to use the reports only of the official New China News Agency, the journalists said.
Meanwhile, the central government used the news service to announce it was sending a team of high-level investigators to Harbin. In a sign the party is worried about a public backlash, the report suggested in unusually blunt terms that officials would be disciplined. “Punishments of irresponsible acts are on the way,” it said….
Reached by phone, an environmental official in Songyuan, a city of more than 400,000 located between Jilin and Harbin, confirmed that officials there were told of the spill but chose to keep it secret. The official, who asked to be identified only by a surname, Li, said the city shut off the part of its water system that is linked to the river but told the public it was just doing repairs.
A water industry official in Harbin, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was likely that farmers and others living in rural areas between Jilin and Harbin were not informed of the spill and drank or used the contaminated water. Benzene poisoning can cause anemia, some forms of cancer and other blood disorders, as well as kidney and liver damage.
It was not until Nov. 21, when they were confronted with tests showing pollution at more than 100 times acceptable levels, that Harbin officials decided to shut down the water supply. Even then, the city said the reason for doing so was to “carry out repair and inspections on the pipe network.”
In the most damning report in the state media, China Newsweek magazine said the governor of Heilongjiang province, Zhang Zuoji, told a meeting of 400 officials that the city lied because it was waiting for permission from higher authorities to disclose the spill. The magazine also said participants in the meeting were told that Harbin officials were reluctant to contradict the denials of Jilin officials that were reported in “authoritative media,” a reference to official outlets in Beijing.
It was only after an urgent message by provincial officials on Monday night seeking help and guidance from the central government that officials decided to end the coverup, the magazine said. The announcement came at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, less than two hours after city authorities received instructions from Beijing.
A day later, the central government confirmed that a “major water pollution incident” had occurred.
But by then, the damage to the party’s credibility had been done. Residents described a rush to leave the city and panicked buying of bottled water and other supplies as the conflicting explanations fueled public confusion and rumors of an imminent earthquake, apparently introduced by a vague television forecast.
If they are so willing on all sides – local and central – to cover up a disaster that can kill their citizens, why on earth should we believe that they are eager and sincere in their efforts to be transparent and open about bird flu? This is a reflexive, automatic and apparently unalterable response in China to bad news: place stability and harmony above all else, even at the expense of human life. It is not restricted to local governments. This mentality pervades all levels of the Party, and if there were any lessons learned from the great SARS catastrophe, they are not in evidence today.