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Commentary (November 30, 2005)

There's No Future in Secrecy

Frank Ching  (Commentator based in Hong Kong)

China is in the news. On the health pages, one reads that foreign scientists are mystified that China has reported only three cases of human bird-flu infections when Vietnam - with less than a 10th of its population - has reported 91. They recall that China covered up the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak and wonder if it is happening again.

The financial pages report that a futures trader, Liu Qibing, lost a market gamble on the price of copper and racked up losses of more than US$100 million. Chinese officials at first denied that he existed, then said he did not act for the government. Subsequently, it turned out that he was very much a government trader. This affects China's credibility as a financial trading partner.

The front page has been full of news about the November 13 explosion at a Jilin city petrochemical plant that killed five workers and injured 70. The explosion resulted in 100 tonnes of benzene and other toxic chemicals being dumped into the Songhua River, an important water source in northeastern China.

The chemical firm lied, saying the explosion caused no pollution. The government of Jilin province covered up the accident and did not notify officials in neighbouring Heilongjiang province for five days. After Harbin was informed, the city government shut off the water supply. However, it lied about the reason, saying that it was for routine maintenance of the pipes.

According to China Newsweek magazine, the governor of Heilongjiang, Zhang Zuoji , said the city lied because it was awaiting permission from higher authorities to disclose the spill. Permission, it seems, is needed to tell the truth but not to lie. Many thousands of people living between Jilin and Harbin were not informed of the spill and, apparently, drank and used the contaminated water.

Accidents and disasters claim more than a million casualties a year in China. According to senior official Wang Jikun , of the Ministry of Public Security, they injured 1.75 million people and killed 210,000 last year. Economic losses amounted to US$80.15 billion, or 6 per cent of the gross domestic product.

China, we keep hearing, has a culture of secrecy: virtually anything can be considered a state secret. Officials are trained not to tell the truth or, at least, not to tell the whole truth. In practice, this often means that they have to lie.

But in this increasingly globalised world, what happens in one country often has an impact on another country. The withholding of information may adversely affect other countries as well and, as a result, affect China's relationship with that country.

The polluting of the Songhua River is a case in point. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing met the Russian ambassador to China, Sergei Razov, on Saturday and told him about the 100 tonnes of benzene headed towards the Russian town of Khabarovsk on the Amur River.

Mr Li apologised for any harm that may be caused by the incident to Russian people downstream. The ambassador told him that the disaster could have been dealt with more efficiently if China had warned Russia sooner. That meeting took place almost two weeks after the accident.

Too little is being done to preserve the environment. China should treat the Songhua River incident as a wake-up call. It is time to jettison the secretive ways of the past; to stop lying. Most important of all, the government should accord the highest priority to the health and welfare of China's 1.3 billion people. That should take precedence over economic growth.

With China now a major regional - if not yet a global - power, it has to act like a responsible country and be willing to be held accountable both to its own people and to the international community.

(Originally appeared in the November 30, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)

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