China's Government Cracks Down After Toxic Spill

The Chinese government fired its environmental protection minister and other officials over the spill of deadly toxic chemicals still coursing through a river in the country's northeast. The administration of President Hu Jintao has pledged to hold officials accountable, but the handling of the spill suggests local officials still withhold information from Beijing and the public.

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In China, fallout continues after last month's giant toxic spill into the Songhua River. China's president today said his country will do all it can to prevent the pollution from reaching Russia. In recent days, a number of Chinese officials have resigned after the spill caused the northeastern city of Harbin to shut off its water supply for days. The government has promised harsh punishment for official misconduct related to the spill. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

By the time China's Cabinet concludes its ongoing investigation into the spill, those it finds responsible may already have been punished. On Monday, the China National Petroleum Corporation fired the manager of its Jilin petrochemical plant, where an explosion dumped a hundred tons of toxic chemicals into the Songhua river. And on Friday, Xie Zhenhua, the head of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, or SEPA, resigned over the spill.

Jung Pung(ph) is an environmental expert at a think tank called The China Structural Reform Research Association. He spoke in an interview at a downtown dim sum restaurant.

Mr. JUNG PUNG (The China Structural Reform Research Association): (Through Translator) I believe that these negligent officials, including the head of SEPA, were clear about the overall situation on the day of the explosion or a day or two after. It's not that they didn't know.

KUHN: It's just that they lied. Heilongjiang provincial governor Zhang Zuoji told the official Xinhua News Agency that it was a well-intentioned lie. The city government of Harbin initially said it was shutting off the city's water supply for pipe maintenance. Ten hours later, it admitted that it was in fact because a toxic spill was just hours up the river from them. Professor Mao Sholung(ph) of Tsinghua University's School of Public Management has been critical of the government's handling of the crisis.

Professor MAO SHOLUNG (Chingwa University School of Public Management): (Through Translator) Nobody's very satisfied, particularly not ordinary citizens. The explosion was on the 13th. The river water was tested upstream on the 14th. Nine or 10 days later, by the time people knew what was happening, the water in Harbin City was shut off and the problem was upon them.

KUHN: When President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao assumed office, they vowed that, as Wen put it, `When power is used there will be supervision and when rights are infringed there must be compensation.' To prove their point, they sacked China's health minister and Beijing's mayor over the cover-up of the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003. In China, officials have always been accountable to their superiors, but not to the people. Jung Pung says official thinking is still mired in these traditions.

Mr. JUNG: (Through Translator) Officials have not adapted to the age of public opinion. They think they can still control the flow of information. It's their instinct.

KUHN: You hear the tradition in the stilted jargon of Chinese officialdom. They still talk about the government setting the tone or guiding public opinion on current events. This time, officials in Harbin dragged out the traditional concerns, that telling the public the truth might cause them to panic or scare off investors or tourists. But this time, many of China's media weren't buying it. A recent issue of the weekly newsmagazine Nun Fung Tuan(ph) commented that this attitude aggravates the public's lack of trust in the government's disclosure of information.

Dr. Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, is the author of the book "China's Environmental Crisis." He points out that, luckily for China, the benzene that was spilled into the river evaporates and decomposes quickly.

Dr. VACLAV SMIL (University of Manitoba): I say if there was--there had been a spill of a heavy metal or a spill of a herbicide or pesticide, then the accident itself would have been, you know, just terrible.

KUHN: But in the end, the government's handling of this spill may have been more dangerous than the spill itself. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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