Harbin aftermath: Government vows to thoroughly scape all goats

Catastrophes are fun to watch, but not nearly so much fun as the aftermath of kicking, screaming and recriminations as blame is liberally heaped and fingers pointed. Katrina lasted only a day, after all, but the operatic fallout has reverberated for weeks, although less loudly now than it did at first. Chinese post-disaster convulsions are, perhaps, a bit more cryptic and mysterious than the American version, but interesting nonetheless. The aftermath of the Songhua River poisoning is just getting going, and, as it unfolds, the Chinese government and US government are notable for some of their similarities as well as some of their differences.

The Chinese are following the US precedent by eagerly shoveling blame down onto lower levels of government. The better to distract people’s attention from the fact that the central government, if not directly responsible for the explosion, was apparently directly involved in the subsequent ten-day coverup. But at the same time, they are indulging in the classic central goverment pastime of erasing the inconvenient bits of the story in a way that the US government only wishes it could do.

My attention was drawn back to this issue by an article that ran on Xinhua’s website today, hopefully titled, “China vows to “sternly” punish those responsible for river pollution“. (I’ve taken the liberty of correcting the spelling of the word “river”.) The article is interesting because it’s a classic bit of PR misdirection. Read this:

The head of national work safety watchdog vowed Tuesday to “sternly” punish those responsible for a chemical plant explosion in northeast China’s Jilin Province, which caused toxic leakage into the Songhua River, a main water supply source in the area.

Li Yizhong, director of the National Bureau of Production Safety Supervision Administration, pledged a thorough investigation in the explosion and the ensuing toxic spill in the river.

Li, who headed an investigation team set up by the State Council on Tuesday to probe the accident, promised to seriously deal with those enterprises, departments and individuals held responsible for the accident.

“Anyone, who were found guilty of dereliction of duty, will be harshly dealt with,” he said, “those who break the law will be handed over to the judicial departments.”

“People who are found to have provided false information to investigators will also be punished severely,” the official said. “Any move trying to cover up the cause of the accident and any passive attitude toward the probe are deemed deception and a defiance of law.”


The investigation team will probe the cause of the blast and why there were no preventative measures in place to prevent the benzene from being discharged into the Songhua River.

An earlier report said that Yu Li, head of the Jilin branch of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), was removed from his post.

Two other officials, who allegedly held direct responsibility for the plant explosion, were also dismissed.

Besides, Xie Zhenhua, head of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), China’s environmental watchdog, resigned after the accident, becoming the highest-ranking Chinese official to resign for an environmental incident.

Ask yourself two questions. 1) What do you see in this article? 2) What do you not see in this article? My answers:

What I see in this article:

  • A resolute central government taking action
  • An investigation team created by the State Council to probe the accident
  • Rolling of heads involved in the explosion (and one central government head)
  • Stern threats of punishment for those found to have caused the article through dereliction or negligence
  • Stern threats of punishment for those found to have “provided false information to investigators”
  • This last one is important: stern threats of punishment for those found to have covered up the cause of the accident (my emphasis)

What I do not see in this article:

  • Any acknowledgment of the coverup of the release of Benzene (as opposed to the cause of the explosion)
  • Any suggestion that the central government was complicit in any way in that coverup (although the resignation of Xie Zhenhua suggests some acknowledgment of responsibility for the initial accident)
  • Any suggestion that a general climate of lax central regulation and control might have played a role creating conditions conducive to the explosion

This is not surprising in the least, but it lets you see how the story is going to be spun. The accident was bad, and if negligence was involved, it is appropriate to punish the people involved. And this makes a handy flash-bang for catching people’s attention and making them feel that Something is Being Done. But it ignores the fact that the coverup of the benzene release was arguably an equally (or even more) serious crime to any negligence that might have precipitated the original explosion. After all, it was the coverup that exposed everyone living along the Songhua River between the chemical plant and whatever point the Benzene had reached when the coverup was blown to potential poisoning. If anything is going to be investigated, it’s the coverup and the decisions made around it that should come under scrutiny.

But there is, of course, faint hope of that. The coverup is joining the lengthening list of catastrophic un-events in recent Chinese history.

I realize this is a deconstruction of a translation, which is dangerous territory. But everything I see is consistent with how I would expect the government here to respond.

In what looks like another consequence of the disaster, it was reported by the AFP today that a Jilin City vice mayor and environmental chief has died in apparently mysterious circumstances:

The vice mayor and environment chief for China’s Jilin city has been found dead, the city’s Communist Party press office said, amid accusations he was involved in last month’s toxic disaster cover-up there.

“He died yesterday,” a spokesman for the Jilin city party press office told AFP, without giving any details as to the cause of death.

“The police are investigating. We don’t know any more about it. I think the police will make a public announcement after they finish their investigation.”

Wang Wei, the vice mayor who was also in charge of environment protection, took a high-profile role after a blast at the PetroChina chemical plant in Jilin on November 13 that killed eight people and injured 60 others.

The accident led to the spillage of 100 tonnes of the carcinogens benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River, one of China’s longest waterways and a source of water for millions of people.

However officials said nothing of the contamination of the Songhua for nearly 10 days.

“It will not cause large scale pollution. We have decided not to have a large scale evacuation,” the China Business News quoted Wang on November 15 as saying.

If the police are investigating, one must assume that Wang Wei did not pass away peacefully in his sleep. A Japanese-style shame suicide, perhaps? Conspiracy buffs may supply their theories in the comment space.

Update: The Associated Press interprets the story a little differently than I did.

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