Behind a Chinese Cover-up

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The reason that officials in northeastern China decided not to announce that a 50-mile slick of toxic benzene was headed downriver toward the city of Harbin earlier this month was their fear of damaging tourism and investment in the region, sources tell TIME. Instead, as the potentially lethal spill approached the metropolis of 10 million people, the city said in an online statement that the entire water supply was being shut down for "water main maintenance and repair."

The spill had occurred on Nov. 13 when an explosion at a state-owned chemical factory in the province of Jilin released huge amounts of benzene into the Songhua river. But for the next nine days the government balked at telling citizens of Harbin, in the neighboring province of Heilongjiang, about the approaching pollutants, despite the fact that the river is the source of drinking water for the center of the city. The crucial decision to keep the spill secret was explained to provincial officials by Heilongjiang governor Zhang Zuoji at an internal meeting in Harbin's Peace Village Hotel on November 22, according to one attendee who spoke to TIME and shared his notes about the meeting on condition of anonymity.

Chinese Communist Party officials have been frequently criticized for trying to cover up bad news after the fact, but in this case they chose to withhold what they knew even while the danger persisted. As the poison flowed downstream, information flowed in only one direction: up. While the public remained in the dark, officials reported to their superiors, who in turn reported further up the command chain. At each level, officials understood that there was less risk of official censure in awaiting orders than in making snap decisions that might have enabled residents to prepare.

The secret meeting at the Communist Party-owned Peace village Hotel was convened by Heilongjiang governor Zhang at 2:30 p.m., and was attended by 400 officials. According to the source who spoke to TIME, the event was so hastily arranged that nobody checked identification cards or invitations on the way in. As a vice-governor called the meeting to order, hotel employees were still adding chairs for those standing in the aisles. Attendees, who included county and city officials and executives from large state-run enterprises, had already been briefed and knew of pollutants in the river.

Governor Zhang spoke into a microphone. "When we received the report on the 18th, we immediately took measures," he said. "We had to plan for the worst-case scenario, not the best. If we didn't turn off the water, the masses might drink it. Who would want to shoulder that responsibility? "

But Zhang did not shoulder the responsibility of telling the public why it would endure dry taps for four days. "Why didn't we immediately announce the situation to people outside the system?" he asked. "There were three reasons. First, the pollution had not yet entered our province. Second, we had not received direct data. Third, the Xinhua news agency had just reported that there was no pollution." In fact, Xinhua doesn't seem to have issued such a report on its public newswire, although the agency also produces internal reports for top government officials.

Officials in Heilongjiang declined to confirm Zhang's comments. "It was an internal meeting," said an official from the Heilongjiang Information Department who identified himself only by his surname, Yue, "which means it was not the kind of news that should be reported. It was confidential information." The party's flagship newspaper, People's Daily, reported on the meeting but never mentioned Zhang's explanation of the cover-up. It reported only that Zhang announced the formation of an emergency leadership group to manage the crisis, with himself as its head.

But in fact Zhang was never fully in charge: After receiving news of the spill he had contacted the State Council, China's Beijing-based cabinet, seeking instructions, but had received no reply. That apparently put him in a quandary. "On the one hand, people have the right to know. The responsibility of government is to be open and transparent," he said. "On the other hand, investment in Heilongjiang province is at a critical moment. The travel season is nearly upon us, especially the ice festival." Harbin's annual ice festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to view massive sculptures carved from blocks of ice taken from the Songhua.

"Finally, we needed to consider who will speak to the outside," he said, apparently in reference to notifying downstream cities in Russia. The Songhua flows into Russia's Amur river before emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk. "We asked the State Council, who will inform them? And how? This is not the kind of thing a province can decide."

With the shutoff looming, he explained, Harbin city officials knew they had to say something. So, Zhang concluded, "Harbin created an explanation. It could only say that it was conducting maintenance on the water main." Zhang decided a misleading statement was better than no statement at all.

Zhang continued by saying that at 5 p.m. on November 21, he contacted his immediate boss, the province's Communist Party Secretary, Song Fatang. From 11:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., both men again reported to the State Council in Beijing. They requested that an upstream reservoir be opened to dilute the scum floating down the river, asked that a group of water-safety experts be dispatched, and informed Beijing that they would turn off the water the next day.

Zhang said he received "a memorandum" from Beijing around midnight on Nov. 21, but didn't reveal the contents. He told officials to be ready for a disaster on the scale of an earthquake or a bird flu outbreak. At 2 a.m. on Nov. 22—presumably with Beijing's permission—Harbin put out a second statement alerting the population to the water stoppage. This time, the statement acknowledged that the chemical-plant explosion had "perhaps polluted the water" in the Songhua. This announcement seemed to calm residents, as did efficient logistics that ensured access to plenty of clean drinking water trucked in from neighboring cities.

The meeting ended with Zhang saying that after the water was declared safe, he would drink the first glass. He did so last Sunday evening, two weeks after the toxic spill nobody wanted to mention.