BEIJING—When a chemical plant leaked poison into a river in northeastern China, sparking a calamity this week, regional officials employed a time-tested strategy to quash the bad news: They lied.
First, they denied that the chemical plant along the Songhua River had leaked anything other than water and carbon dioxide.
When a 50-mile slick of cancer-causing benzene approached Harbin, the largest city in China's northeast, threatening its drinking water, officials shut down the water system. They told the city's 3.8 million residents that the four-day water cutoff was for maintenance.
Only when panic and public suspicion overwhelmed officials Wednesday did they admit that 100 tons of toxic chemicals had leaked into the river and acknowledge the danger to public health. As the weekend began, the toxic benzene had mostly passed through Harbin, but another benzene spill occurred after a factory explosion in southwestern China. Benzene, a solvent and a component of gasoline, isn't soluble in water and can cause liver damage and cancer.
As the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident did in the Soviet Union, the government's lies and attempts to cover up the disaster—and the angry public reaction to them—have underscored how brittle government credibility is in a one-party state. As avian flu outbreaks erupt nearly daily, and other health, labor and environmental problems fester, some Chinese wonder whether they can trust officials on public safety issues.
More than 100 emergency water wells have been sunk around Harbin, but on Friday residents spent a third day drinking only bottled beverages, with no running water for bathing or hygiene.
"They can't flush their toilets. It's very cold in the city, and they need a lot of water for their (steam) heating systems," said Ma Jun, an environmental consultant and the author of a 2004 book, "China's Water Crisis."
As the benzene slick moved down the partially frozen Songhua River toward the Amur River in Russia's Far East, Russia grew jittery. "Chemical Attack Threatens the Amur," the Vladivostok Daily News blared Friday in a huge front-page headline. The Khabarovsk region along the border with China entered a state of emergency Friday, and officials there said river water might not be safe until early next year.
In an apparent attempt to deflect attention from Beijing, state-run Chinese media lashed out Friday at the Jilin provincial government and the Jilin Petrochemical Plant, a subsidiary of China's largest, state-owned oil company, for failing to apologize for their lies.
"We do not know what is behind the cover-up. It might be because they were afraid that they would have to pay money for the losses the pollution has incurred in Harbin, and it might be because they were afraid of losing face," the English-language China Daily newspaper said in an editorial. "But the fact is that they have brought shame on themselves by covering up the truth."
Gov. Zhang Zuoji of Heilongjiang province, which is downstream from Jilin province, promised to drink the first glass of water from Harbin taps once water is restored, maybe Saturday, to show that officials care about citizens' well-being.
"It will take extra effort to restore confidence," Ma said. "Otherwise, people will only become more skeptical."
Some analysts compared the ecological calamity to the government's initial efforts in 2003 to smother news of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a pandemic that eventually spread to 30 countries and killed nearly 800 people.
"At the first sign of anything, Chinese people have the tendency to believe what the government tells them. What is interesting to me is how quickly the credibility breaks down," said Michael Pettis, an associate professor of finance at Peking University.
During the SARS crisis, Pettis said, word spread rapidly through cellular phone text-messaging that the government was covering up the epidemic's death toll.
"At the end of three days, nobody trusted the government," he said.
Central government leaders restored confidence, but Pettis said many Chinese believe "that provincial government is less trustworthy than the national government."
Chinese are more wired and digitally connected than ever before, making government cover-ups more difficult. The nation now has 377 million cell phone users.
"In today's China, it's very hard for the government to conceal information," said Yang Hongshan, the deputy director of the Public Policy Research Center at People's University in Beijing. "The public can turn to text messages, the Internet or other ways for help. Rumors can spread more easily, and there can be greater panic."
Yang said the government could "reduce people's suspicion and mistrust" only by releasing information promptly.
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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