China yesterday published the death toll from this year's natural disasters -- until this month considered a state secret -- but showed the limit of its new-found transparency by keeping details of past calamities under wraps.
The report, which was broadcast live on state television, is part of a new initiative by the Chinese government to routinely disclose the death tolls and economic impact of natural disasters.
The government announced earlier this month that such information would no longer be considered a state secret.
"It is an important measure taken by us in order to establish transparent government which puts people first," Zou Ming, an official in the disaster relief section of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, told a news conference.
"It is absolutely in line with our policy of administration in accordance with the law. That is to say, the general public has the right to information and they have the right to participation in the management of national affairs," Zou said.
But officials said China had no intention of revising death tolls from past calamities that critics say were not natural but the product of misguided politics.
The worst was a famine that claimed as many as 30 million lives in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the Communist Party refers to as "three years of natural disasters".
It has been blamed by many on Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) Great Leap Forward, in which farmers were urged to abandon their fields and make steel in backyard furnaces.
"As for the three-year famine in China, we do not have the specific information about the death toll of that disaster, so we will not revise the death toll and nor will we publicize the death toll," said Jia Zhibang, deputy director of the Disaster Relief Commission.
Jia said the death toll from natural disasters this year stood at 1,629 so far, with economic losses of more than US$20 billion.
Jia said that the economic losses due to natural disasters had been "rising sharply"since the 1990s, but did not give specific figures.
"This has grave implications for economic development and social stability," he said.
China has been battered in recent weeks by typhoons that triggered floods and mudslides in eastern and southern provinces.
"By making the death toll of natural disasters not a state secret, we want to improve the right to information of the general public and increase their participation in the disaster reduction efforts," Jia said.
Accurate reporting would mark a sea change for China, where officials have been prone to falsify figures rather than report bad news to their superiors.
The deaths of 85,000 people in Henan Province in 1975, when dams burst during a typhoon, were revealed only in a book on China's worst disasters in the 20th century in 1998.