Chinese government officials lied about Benzene spill

Big surprise.

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.

The Discussion: 31 Comments

Friday I Ching Blogging: China’s Chernobyl?

The horrific chemical spill in the Songhua River in China is an environmental disaster of gigantic scale. Harbin, a city of 3.8 million people, has had to cut all of its public water supplies. An untold number of people

November 25, 2005 @ 8:29 pm | Comment

Great post. Though to some extent I subscribe to the “two governments” theory (I think it’s actually more governments than that, given the factionalization at every level in the CCP), I pretty much think that governments tend to lie if they can get away with it. Kudos to the Chinese press for trying to bring this to light.

November 26, 2005 @ 12:34 am | Comment

Doesn’t bode well for the Three Giorges Dam does it? When that creates a 200km long toxic lake full of raw sewage, silt and benzene, who will tell the public that Li Peng’s engineering showpiece was a disastrous idea?

November 26, 2005 @ 12:39 am | Comment

well, given that the idea came from Li Peng…don’t we pretty much know it was a bad one already??

November 26, 2005 @ 12:44 am | Comment

Well, I don’t think these things happen so much because some level of gov’t is “bad” or “evil”, I think it’s closer to “criminally negligent” or maybe “criminally incompetent”. Maybe those are just kinds of evil.

It seems to be the natural result of a system that does not reward merit, initiative, or acceptance of responsibility. Instead, moving ahead in the Chinese system so often has more to do with connections or pay-offs. Cover-ups and all form of petty deception are the natural product of a system with such underpinnings.

In this kind of system, accepting responsibility has little possible good outcome (the Boss takes those), but plenty of risk should things go wrong. So, the natural and rational outcome is to pass the problem off to someone else as quickly as possible. Because accountability is also very low, passing off a problem is pretty easy and low-risk, while accepting responsibility is difficult and high-risk.

In that respect, I think it’s hard to blame a bureaucrat in the bowels of this kind of system, at least until they cross the line of actively endangering or harming someone.

I’m not sure if any of this matters, if the net result is little different than”bad” or “evil”. 🙁

I really hope the Chinese can get a handle on this issue, I think it’s a fundamental one that impedes their progress in on many fronts. Hopefully this at least lights a rocket under the growing environmentalist movement here.

Sorry to pontificate at length, the benzene slick has made me cranky.

Good luck to any of our fellow readers living around the Songhua River!!

November 26, 2005 @ 12:58 am | Comment

Definitely “bad.” “Evil”? Not so sure. It is, as I say, reflexive, a force of habit. There are no doubt plenty of civil servants in “both governments” who are deeply concerned and upset and want to do what’s best for their people. But the harmony-first mentality works against them, to the detriment of all.

November 26, 2005 @ 1:07 am | Comment

I see this post just won me my first link from the great new blog experiment Pajamas Media. I’ve been meaning to blog about them for days, but haven’t gotten around to it. When I do, I promise, it’ll be a post to remember.

November 26, 2005 @ 1:09 am | Comment

Oh, gawd. I can’t wait…

November 26, 2005 @ 1:11 am | Comment

Yes Richard. Evil.
A regime that cares more for staying in power than the people it’s supposed to ‘represent’, that claims legitmacy for a 55 year old revolution while denying all other means to throw it out, that would rather its people DIE through SARS or bird flu or its continued contamination of water (thanks to the CCP’s overview 3/4 of all Chinese water is unsafe for drinking or even irrigation thus further depleting the 7% of the land that can still grow food) is evil.

November 26, 2005 @ 1:17 am | Comment

PS- What is your definition of evil, as opposed to simply “bad”?

November 26, 2005 @ 1:19 am | Comment

Maybe I’m just trying to be the peacekeeper. There are certainly evil elements in the CCP, as there are in other governments. But I want to avoid painting them as categorically evil. I honestly don’t believe they are. Unfortunately, the evil forces seem to have more sway than the good. But I guess you can say the same thing about the Bush administration. (I don’t think the PJ’s visitors are going to like that.)

November 26, 2005 @ 1:22 am | Comment

About the definitions… Bad, to me, speaks to incompetence and selfishness. Evil is about malevolence, wishing badness on others, like Hitler and Mao did. I really don’t see Hu and his motley crew as evil. But I do see them as very bad.

November 26, 2005 @ 1:26 am | Comment

CCP – Chinese Cover-up Party.

November 26, 2005 @ 1:28 am | Comment

Where are HongXing and Shuxue? Here, a disaster has happened which makes the Chinese government look criminally incompetent. Isn’t it time they stepped in, praised the wise leadership of the CCP and tried to deflect the conversation onto some other topic? I would have expected that by now they’d be speculating that the manager of the benzene plant had been out visiting prostitutes, or something.

November 26, 2005 @ 2:52 am | Comment

Yeah, I might have been overboard there Richard. I don’t think the regime wants people to die from carcinogenic water and bird flu, but then their level of executions and treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang and Tibetans as a whole etc etc etc is pretty damn close to evil…

November 26, 2005 @ 3:59 am | Comment

I talked to a friend of mine who is there,and there are two aspects to this story that I have yet to see reported in any Western press.First off,the rumor is going around that drinking any water will make your inhibitions disappear, that people will become crazen sexual maniacs if they inbibe the tainted fluids,and the other is that everyone in that area is preparing for a massive earthquake that has been predicted.

November 26, 2005 @ 4:30 am | Comment

Hi Richard,

Here in Vietnam following this horrible disaster from Vietnam.

I agree, there is no excuse for the central government not to have perked up and say, “Wait a minute…” They are responsible and there is no way around it.

But local officials are at whim of the central government. They don’t want to say something which they perceive will get them into trouble, which is why you had so much crap going on, and ridiculous lies and cover up attempts.

So, it is about the two government system, BUT

It’s an argument against it, as to exactly why it has to be reformed. It’ll be a very interesting next few months.

China’s Katrina??

November 26, 2005 @ 5:15 am | Comment

Is this kind of thing a threat to stability? I’ve decided that no matter how much of this shit happens, the government is never going to fall. It’s already so low there is no place for it to fall too. People have intensely low expectations, everyone knows it is completely corrupt. And the alternative is anarchy, which is unthinkable to a Chinese. The government is almost like blackmail: accept this crap, because the alternative is the abyss.

The Sovs had the same environmental disasters, but without the accompanying 9% growth. The public will forgive a lot if it has paying work and a shot at a good future. Don’t overestimate the effect of this disaster. It’s a lot of toxic chemicals at once, but let’s not forget that those tens of thousands of illegal and unregulated factories that line every river in China are pouring the same shit into the water in cumulatively equivalent amounts.


November 26, 2005 @ 6:41 am | Comment

Adam, we’re actually pretty much in agreement.

Michael, things are not as stable as you may think. If they were, the government wouldn’t be so hysterical about the Falun Gong and cyberdissidents and harmony and so much else. It’s tenuous, because the slightest spark could set the entire party ablaze. There are some serious cracks in the system, and it is China’s prosperity, ironically, that could make it ripe for change. As its rising middle class gets better tuned in, the more demanding they are becoming, and they won’t tolerate a catastrophe that could well threaten their food supply. When your food, water and air are threatened, you have very little to lose.

November 26, 2005 @ 7:03 am | Comment

My two fen, about the definition of “Evil”

1. All of the great religions – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus (in no particular order here), – all of the greatest lights among them anyway, all conceive of “Evil” as:

“Untruth” or “Lies”

2. Now getting into a more Christian perspective on this (just because I know more about the Christian tradition), Jesus called Satan “the Father of Lies”

3. Digging even deeper – into the Catholic wisdom (which I know especially well, although it is NOT the ONLY wisdom, there are others, among the Buddhists and Muslims and other Holy traditions) – in ALL cases of demonic possession recorded by the Catholic Church (well, YES I have studied this), there is a consistent pattern among the identified “demonically possessed”:

A. A preternatural way of creating confusion

B. An ingenious way of twisting all logic into APPARENT logic which is really full of logical errors

C. A rejection of – and a violent hostility towards – any suggestion of any kind of Science, any kind of clearly knowable facts

D. Repetitive statements against any kind of science or any ability for Humans to know Scientific Truth

E. Repetitive statements about how “All truth is relative”

F. In ALL recorded Catholic exorcisms, the demons reject any kind of independent identity or independent, personal thinking.
They ALL say, “We are ONE, we are all together, the will, we are the Will of the Will of the Will of the One”, or words to that effect. That is to say, at least as far as 2000 years of Catholic experience with exorcisms goes, ALL “evil” spirits are very fascist and very authoritarian in their thinking, and they ALL violently hate any suggestion of any spirit thinking for himself.

G. In all Catholic records of “Evil” spirits, they ALL go on and on and on, about how “Truth is whatever we want it to be.”

H. As far as I am concerned, in MY opinion, “Evil” is real and substantial, and it has very vivid, categorical, identifiable qualities.
Very simply, “Evil” is whenever anyone (Human or other spirits, anyone) CHOOSES unreality. Evil is whenever anyone CHOOSES to lie.
And thousands of years of all of the great religions of the world agree with this.
Evil is real, and it is simple to define. Evil is WILLFUL UNTRUTH.
And so, whenever the government of the PRC CHOOSES to lie, it is evil.
The PRC government is NOT categorically evil. Neither is the US government. But ALL governments, and ALL individuals, are evil whenever they choose to believe in lies, and whenever they choose to make other people believe in lies.

November 26, 2005 @ 9:46 am | Comment


I would argue that it is unfair to limit evil to governments and individuals. I see no reason why religious institutions and non-governmental organisations should be exempt from evil, as there are plenty of examples of instances, both historical and in the present, when such institutions choose to believe in lies, and choose to make other people believe in lies.

November 26, 2005 @ 11:27 am | Comment

All I can say is that this goes to show how useless the CCP is. They put covering their own arses above reassuring the public/protecting their health.

People have been trying to say “hey, it’s ok – they stopped the pollution getting into the city’s water supply”. Well, joy. Did anyone stop to think about the farmers and peasants that kept drinking the water because they thought it was safe? Nope, because they’re expendable I guess.

If this kind of divide in China continues, with the city dwellers protected but the rural types left without information or protection, I’m quite sure that any future “threat” to the CCP will come from the peasants. There’s only so much they can take. Beijing had better hope they don’t have hundreds/thousands of people getting sick in the countryside.

November 26, 2005 @ 11:55 am | Comment

richard, considering that there are a lot of Chinese, putting emphasis on harmony is not a bad thing, but rather good. Seeking harmony is not being silent or covering this up. I have a different concept of harmony: working together to solve problems. Not seeking conflicts, but building bridges. Willing to give in, to reach common understanding and avoid conflicts. Of course I understand why Americans have a different mindset. Seeking to get things done in their way, or the highway. Seeking “winner takes all” like solutions.

The environment is suffering from the rapid economic development. For example, eating fish or seafood is not very healthy anymore, because of the polution. I believe China needs more expertise and help in sustainable development. Not only that, Chinese should develop ideas and technologies to achieve this goal: keeping rapid economic growth, but not at the expensive of environment and people’s livelihood. I believe this is one of the greatest challenges for the Chinese people.

November 26, 2005 @ 6:28 pm | Comment

ZHJ, if “social harmony” means addressing inequalities and injustices that are sparking social unrest, then it’s a really good thing, and I am rooting for their efforts. The problem is, what the government seems to be doing is covering up and censoring the truth, as a way to create the illusion of greater social harmony. It’s not just a question of needing greater expertise and new technologies (though I agree with you that both of these are necessary) – it’s dealing with a system where rich factory owners and provincial officials are able to pollute with impunity.

Maybe this disaster will help spur some genuine reforms. I hope so.

November 26, 2005 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

Weekend PR Blog: The Harbin Water Crisis

A couple of days ago, in response to a link I posted to his
roundup of articles on the Harbin…

November 26, 2005 @ 8:38 pm | Comment

Raj wrote:

(The CCP) put covering their own arses above reassuring the public/protecting their health.

This really is the scariest part of it. I have to wonder, just how long would those authorities have delayed? Would they really have allowed Harbinites to drink benzene-laced water if word had not gotten out?

I have a terrible feeling that the answer for some of those officials is yes, they would have. I suspect some of them would have allowed countless people to sicken or even die than accept responsibility for their mistake. That’s “ma mu” on a monstrous scale.

November 27, 2005 @ 7:18 am | Comment

Of course I understand why Americans have a different mindset. Seeking to get things done in their way, or the highway. Seeking “winner takes all” like solutions.

ZHJ, I thnk that’s really an unfair characterization. Americans and westerners in general often seek “win-win” situations, they are considered the ideal long-term business relationship.

For example, compare the treatment of customers in western business culture and Chinese business culture. Which customer gets told “my way or the highway”?

I like your idea of harmony and working together to solve problems. Unfortunately, the Songhua River incident shows just how far the current gov’t of China is from even considering the idea of working together harmoniously with the Chinese people.

When the poison was headed for people’s drinking water, their response was repeated, flat-out denial. Not much chance for harmony or working together there. In fact, sounds rather more like “winner takes all” (i.e. “we’re in control: we win, you lose”). 🙁

November 27, 2005 @ 7:33 am | Comment

What I’ve always argued is that if the only way a government can hold onto power and ensure stability is through breaking its own laws and committing crimes against classes and nationalities through simple expediency, then it’s just not a legitimate government.

November 27, 2005 @ 3:36 pm | Comment

Lisa and Shanghai Slim, I understand your points and I agree that China should move up towards a transparant accountability system. Some may call it a democracy, but if it works, I don’t care how is labelled. The PRC is already moving towards such a system. It’s a natural evolution, as it is the best way to deal with a big crisis.

I also theoretically agree with Keir. If a government cannot respect its own laws and needs to break them to rule, then it has no mandate to rule. However, does it mean that the CCP has no mandate to rule? I think it has, as things are moving forward and China (except perhaps environment) is better off as each day passes by. However, corruption has no place in China or in any society, and should be treated as cancer: cutting it out before it spreads (“persecution”). Then using chemotherapy (“transparant accountability system”) to root it out. So corrupt rulers, whether local, provincial or in Bejing are not legitimate. I agree with that. I think this is a universal common understanding.

November 27, 2005 @ 7:31 pm | Comment

Tired platitudes. Censorship is getting considerably worse with each passing day. (Read this new article, via Bingfeng, in case you need proof.) That means they are moving away from democracy. I can give you links from here to eternity about political activists being beaten and arrested daily for promoting democracy in China. Now, if you are talking about prosperity in China’s cities, there is no argument – it’s real, at least for some. But prosperity and democracy are not synonymous, and one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. No nation in the world was more prosperous than Germany in 1938, especially dazzling for its rags-to-riches metamorphosis. But underneath the veneer of happiness and prosperity, there was a whole lot of suffering, and those who spoke out were silenced. China is not Germany, but I still find extrarodinary parallels.

November 27, 2005 @ 7:47 pm | Comment

ZHJ, I have to echo Richard on this one. An improving economic situation is not necessarily an indication of an improving political situation.

The leaders of the PRC like to talk about moving toward a more accountable system, but I’m just not seeing much real progress happening at all. In fact, you can make a good case that China is losing ground in this respect.

As for corruption, it seems unavoidable in a political system lacking even basic accountability. By their nature, unaccountable systems resist becoming more accountable, for the simple reason that it disrupts their “gravy train” (access to easy money).

So, corruption is not a problem like cancer that can be “removed”, leaving the patient (i.e. PRC gov’t) intact to recover. In this case, the patient is actually benefitting from the cancer, will fight against treating it, and will actively work to promote its growth.

Under these conditions, trying to “remove” the cancer is useless unless the very nature of the patient is also addressed.

November 28, 2005 @ 10:54 am | Comment

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