Letter From China: Beijing fails to deliver on promise of honesty

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2005
SHANGHAI It seemed like such a breath of fresh air when it was announced just a few weeks back that China had changed its policies regarding public information on disasters like typhoons, earthquakes and the like.
Henceforth they were to be disclosed promptly and candidly, as opposed to the time-honored practice of prettifying things or outright covering them up.
Now, in the wake of a spill of toxic benzene into a major river that flows through Harbin, one of the country’s largest cities, and onward into Russian territory, this public information breakthrough, though still recent, already seems like a distant memory. The air once so fresh now seems discomfortingly stale.
It took the Chinese authorities a full 10 days to disclose to the public that Harbin’s water supply had been poisoned. And the handling of this incident says much about the state of the world’s emerging new superpower, its most populous country and its seventh largest economy.
The governor of Heilongjiang Province, Zhang Zuoji, put it most eloquently, or at least colorfully, when he described the way the authorities here suppressed news of the accident. “We were concerned that the public couldn’t understand the sudden catastrophe, and concerned about affecting international relationship,” Zhang said. “Supported by the central government, within less than 10 hours, we corrected this ‘benevolent lie’ and told public the truth, and gained their forgiveness and understanding.”
Even if calling something like this a white lie is an outrageous euphemism, the governor deserves credit for at least venturing a description that begins to hint at the genuine official attitude toward truthful and timely disclosure. To put it plainly, the recent proclamations about disasters notwithstanding, in any matter deemed “sensitive,” the Chinese government unapologetically clings to the belief that its citizens have no right to know.
As Zhang’s statement suggests, the public good that trumps all others is maintaining order, which means avoiding panic of any kind and maintaining confidence in the authorities and in markets that, if only the Chinese people will be patient and “forgiving” enough, will deliver them to a post-political state of material comfort.
In China such an approach has ancient philosophical roots captured in an aphorism, “Don’t inform the people too much, encourage them to depend on their leaders.” Marxism-Leninism, a recent import, has merely provided a modern, ideological and legal veneer.
One is easily tempted to conclude that a style of information management that citizens would regard as contemptuous elsewhere is working. In a recent survey of global attitudes by the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of Chinese expressed satisfaction with their national condition (compared to 39 percent of Americans), and Chinese showed similarly high rates of confidence in their government.
The bigger question, more relevant than ever in a world of Internet news, international travel and SMS messages that zip instantly between cellphones, is whether Abraham Lincoln was right about the futility of trying to fool too many people too often.
One needn’t look hard, beyond the toxic spill, for other examples of news management that have real and serious consequences both for Chinese and for the outside world. Indeed they often seem to come in bunches. Right now, for example, China is in the midst of an outbreak of bird flu, which if it took hold among humans could turn into a global catastrophe.
Officially, only three people have contracted the illness here, yielding two deaths so far. Many international public health experts, however, consider Chinese reporting on the disease to be suspect. Indeed some believe that dozens, perhaps hundreds of people have already fallen ill and died.
There is also the matter of a mysterious Chinese government copper trader who has simply disappeared after reportedly making a huge speculative mistake. The handling of the matter has been classic demonstration of opaque governance. Within China this scandal has all but been passed under silence. To the outside world, China has stonewalled and prevaricated, never shedding any real light on the man and his actions, and so far, not assuming the debts incurred by him on behalf of the country.
It is important to state in passing that every country has its myths and orthodoxies, which every country’s media – the United States’ included – play a role in abetting, through ideological blind spots and ahistoricism and the sheer weight of conventional wisdom. Just look at the recent self-examination by the U.S. press of its coverage of the Iraq war.
That politicians lie and cover up and try their best to manage the news is well near universal. What’s different is that the press in most cultures sees its job as getting at the truth, and in holding rulers to account.
The coverage of a 130-kilometer, or 80-mile, long benzene slick in Harbin demonstrates how truly different China is. Surely every news reporter who wrote a story on the subject knew that a full 10 days had lapsed between the accident and the disclosure, and yet none were allowed to come right out and say why.
“Did they really have no knowledge,” The China Youth Daily asked coyly about the lapse of time before the public was informed of the toxic river contamination. “Or did they deliberately conceal it?” The China Economic Times used another tried and true formula, saying that if “individual leaders tell lies irresponsibly, this is an extremely terrible crime against society.” Left unsaid, because it is taboo here, is any criticism of a system that allowed things to happen this way.
Whatever they might tell pollsters, there are signs that China’s citizenry is increasingly beyond spoon feeding. A glance at the proliferation of blogs and other online commentary here makes that clear. Chinese censors have been busy blocking comments like these, but they have simply been too numerous.
“Any government that lies to public does so for two reasons: incompetence and shamelessness,” read one Web posting. Another read: “The reason for the panic was that the public was not sure how many other serious facts the government had concealed.”
Yet another, sounding downright Lincolnesque, read: “When a lie comes into being, there must be more lies to cover it up. The result is serial lying. However, these lies, like numberless other lies, will all eventually be revealed.”
E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com
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