China's leaders say they will punish those responsible for a toxic spill in a major river. But there is no sign that they want to change what prompted the angriest criticism -- a culture of secrecy that they consider not just a key political weapon but a legitimate way to deal with the Chinese public.
"I don't think it's going to produce any fundamental change," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of Michigan. "This is still an autocratic system. There are things that they just don't want the public to know about."
The disaster is a collision between a communist system that tightly controls information and a fast-changing society. Investors and ordinary Chinese want to know more about the economy, health and other issues, and the public faces an array of threats from pollution, bird flu and other problems.
Communist leaders have given a green light to talking about selected difficulties such as drug abuse and coal mine accidents, admitting that it cannot tackle them without public help.
Beijing has promised to report honestly about disease outbreaks after its tardy response to SARS prompted a storm of criticism in 2003 and hammered China's economy by scaring away tourists and business travellers.
But President Hu Jintao's (
Even if leaders wanted government to be more honest, officials have a financial incentive to protect local industry by hiding bad news, said Ding Xueliang (
"I don't think even one or two big incidents like this one can change the general pattern in China, because it involves too many things -- the central government, local government, how free the media are, the legal system," Ding said. "There is no law that says, `If you lie to the public, you will be punished.'"
The government restricts news of other industrial accidents and environmental disasters -- possibly because typical victims are farmers or factory workers, not business executives or foreign investors.
The Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion that killed five people and dumped 90.5 tonnes of toxic benzene into the Songhua River was an unusual exception, because the river supplies the major city of Harbin with drinking water and flows into neighboring Russia.
It was not until after Harbin announced it was shutting down running water to 3.8 million people, setting off panic-buying that stripped supermarkets of bottled water, that the government confirmed on Nov. 23 that the river was poisoned.
Premier Wen Jiabao (
The government was forced to make embarrassing apologies to both its public and to Russia.
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