11/28/2005, 00.00
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However well-intentioned, China's "white lies" on Harbin pollution worry the world

Water system is working again, but water still cannot be used for drinking or washing. Government makes officially apologises to Russia, but the world wonders about Chinese authorities' habit to hide the truth and withhold the facts.

Harbin (AsiaNews/SCMP) – The toxic slick has left Harbin and is making its way towards Siberia, not the controversy over the Chinese authorities' lies and attempts to whitewash everything with belated admission sand formal apologies.

The water system is back working again in the city (300,000 tonnes per day), but the authorities warned that the water is no yet fit for human use or bathing for there might still be traces of nitrobenzene in it.

Toxic substances might also have remained in the frozen sections of the river and only the springtime thaw might sweep away fears.

Referring to the authorities' pledge that the water system would be back in order in four days, the governor of Heilongjiang province, Zhang Zuoji, said that the "Communist Party and the government keep their word".

There is however growing concern abroad but also in China's media over Chinese authorities' habit of hiding bad news.

It took them ten days before officially announcing that 100 tonnes of toxic material had been released in the Songhua River, ten days during which they and company bosses denied there was any pollution.

Even in Harbin pollution was denied and an admission only came when rumours had already spread in the city causing panic.

Despite what happened, the authorities still believe that silence and lies are legitimate.

"A white lie [said] with good intentions is not serious if it is corrected within ten hours and is backed by the central government," Zhang said yesterday.

Still, most people around the world might have doubts about the wisdom of such a viewpoint when millions of people continue to drink contaminated water and fish in a contaminated river.

Moreover in making such statements, Chinese officials are contracting the own government's claim that it wants to operate with the utmost transparency.

Back in September, the central government had stated that deaths from natural disasters would no longer be considered "state secrets", with heavy jail sentences for violation.

The information blackout, caused by local government pressure on the centre according to many media, slowed down government action and made it less effective.

For many observers the Harbin fiasco is a throwback to the SARS crisis of 2003, when for months Beijing denied there was any outbreak—when in fact hundreds were being infected—only to own up to the world and apologise.

Similarly, after days of hiding the facts, China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing had to admit them and offered Russia official apologies since the Songhua River flows into the Amur River, which runs through the Siberian city of Khabarovsk.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao went to Harbin on November 26 to reassure residents that the government was doing everything possible and promise that heads will roll among local public officials. It is not yet clear though who can be charged with what happened. (PB)

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See also
Officials (belatedly) apologise for lying about the Harbin disaster
Pollution fears and distrusts in officials and politicians grow
More toxic pollution from China's Songhua River reaching Russia
Company only fined for benzene slick in Songhua River
80-kilometre slick of contaminated water reaches Harbin


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