China needs more openness when public safety is threatened

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2013, 8:08am

When a major public health crisis occurs, the first thing a government should do is to alert the people and do whatever it can to protect them. Regrettably, municipal authorities across the border seem to do things differently. Whenever anything goes wrong on the mainland, a cover-up appears to be the first step to take. The practice defies the norm well recognised by governments elsewhere, which puts public safety ahead of their own political interests.

Outrage and condemnation are to be expected after the Shanxi government took almost a week to reveal a toxic chemical spill that had contaminated drinking water for tens of thousands of people in the region. The incident came to light only after a city downstream had suspended water supplies, triggering panic buying of bottled water. A propaganda official at first denied any cover-up, saying there was no need to report it as long as the spill had not leaked outside its jurisdiction.

This is not the first time the province's government has sought to keep the public in the dark. Officials came under fire for waiting eight days to confirm that an explosion had killed at least eight workers at a tunnel construction site. The confirmation only came after a torrent of online criticism.

It is shocking that officials believe they can remain silent as long as the problem has not spread beyond their turf. Such defensiveness underlines officials' mentality of first saving their skin rather than the people in the event of major calamities. The subsequent apology from the mayor can mean only that officials were wrong not to issue a warning immediately.

Growing environmental awareness on the mainland means the authorities have to be more sensitive and responsive towards public health risks. There is no shortage of examples in which pollution issues have escalated into huge protests in recent years. The level of transparency and accountability in the latest incident clearly falls short of expectations. Officials should do a better job of protecting public health.