CHINA: Officials still tend to hide bad news

The Strait TimesBeijing --- Days after the city's taps ran dry, Harbin residents say life is slowly returning to normal. They now have running water to flush toilets and clean their homes.Although the

30 November 2005

The Strait Times

Beijing --- Days after the city's taps ran dry, Harbin residents say life is slowly returning to normal. They now have running water to flush toilets and clean their homes.

Although they cannot yet drink, cook or bathe with the tap water, locals say it is a just small hassle collecting clean water delivered by government trucks daily.

But while many appear unfazed by last week's supply shutdown, some are wondering whether the authorities' failure to sound the alert promptly signals a worrying tendency to avoid facing up to bad news.

This could be critical, with the threat of a bird flu pandemic looming and China being a possible centre for any outbreak, which will need to be tackled through early detection.

One Harbin resident, Mr Zhang Mingjia, said he hoped accurate information in emergencies would be released immediately in future.

'People can then prepare themselves. Otherwise, the consequences will be bad,' he said.

A blast at a PetroChina plant in north-eastern Jilin province on Nov 13 spilt 100 tonnes of benzene into the Songhua River. Officials waited nine days before they cut Harbin's water supply and claimed initially that it was for maintenance. They acknowledged the massive water pollution only later.

All responsible parties have come under fire for concealing the truth and for their slow response.

Experts say this incident bears disturbing echoes of Beijing's initial stonewalling of the spread of Sars in 2003.

It also raises doubts over its handling of disasters and health crises, such as bird flu.

While analysts agree that the swift and aggressive measures taken to curb avian influenza this year show that top leaders are sincere in calling for transparency, they doubt the message has sunk in at local levels.

Analyst Andy Rothman of brokerage firm CLSA said: 'There's no report bad news. They worry that they could get into trouble or if they have to compensate with money out of their local budget.'

Professor Xin Xiangyang of Beijing's Capital Social and Economic Institute said the local government initially covered up the case as it 'had many factors to consider', including running the risks of sparking a panic in the city and ruining relations with neighbouring Russia, which shares the Songhua.
He added: 'There are no laws now that regulate the time, scope and degree to which people should be told about disasters. There has never been a concept of emergency response planning until Sars happened.'

But if change does not come soon, there will be more accidents and deaths -- resulting in high economic cost, warned Professor Jiang Wenran of the University of Alberta's China Institute.

He explained that the current Chinese system requires local officials to ask the central government for permission to make public statements on sensitive issues.

The whole process is slow as the news has to filter upwards through many layers of bureaucracy, he said.

The pollution calamity and recent coal-mine accidents are evidence that reforms in areas such as public health, work safety and environmental protection have not kept up with economic growth, often with disastrous consequences, analysts say.

Official figures showed more than 136,000 people died in work-related accidents last year, but the true figure could be much higher.

Production units are profit-driven, and managers are not investing enough in management upgrades, safety and infrastructure. The lack of free trade unions in China also leaves workers with little power to demand change.

A systemic overhaul is needed for things to improve, said Prof Jiang. He said: 'Detailed instructions on every level of government's role and responsibility must be spelt out. This will ensure officials are accountable as they cannot push the blame to someone else.'