Heavier penalties needed to deter cover-ups of accidents in China

Hu Shuli says two recent cases show up China's lax supervision of power and the distorted incentives that encourage local governments to lie

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 5:23am

The attempted cover-up of two recent industrial accidents in Shanxi dealt yet another blow to government credibility in China.

In the first, the China Railway Tunnel Group - a supposedly "well-managed state-owned enterprise" - tried to cover up a deadly explosion at a railway tunnel project, even going so far as to move the bodies elsewhere for cremation.

In the second, the Changzhi plant of the Shanxi Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group leaked nine tonnes of the toxic chemical aniline into a local river. The accident came to light only after the city of Handan, downstream in Hebei , raised the alarm about the quality of its drinking water.

The Changzhi government said it took the matter for a "minor incident" and did not report it to higher authorities. Many questions about the case have yet to be answered and only frontline workers have been held accountable so far.

Such cover-ups recall the painful memory of the Sars outbreak in 2003, where an official cover-up slowed down efforts to contain the contagion. The heavy price in lives lost should have awakened officials to the dangers of such malfeasance. Sadly, that is not the case. Caixin has found that, in Shanxi alone, officials tried to cover up at least four serious accidents last year. Similar cover-ups also happened in the other provinces, including Henan and Hunan .

The consequences of a cover-up can be grave, often involving a bigger loss of life and property. Take the Shanxi aniline leak. This accident was not of the same scale as the benzene spill in Songhua River or the algal bloom that plagued the polluted Lake Tai. If Shanxi officials had alerted the public to the contamination early on, fewer people would have been affected. At the very least, rumours would not have spread and public panic could have been averted.

Worse, a cover-up adds to the mistrust of government. As some commentators have noted, the consequences of a cover-up are more harmful than the accident officials were trying to cover up in the first place.

The central government in fact demands the timely reporting of accidents. In 2007, the State Council set out the rules on the reporting and investigation into work accidents, and no fewer than six agencies - including those in charge of state inspection, public security and work safety - have jointly issued a notice urging local governments to "step up their efforts to investigate any accident cover-up and punish those responsible according to law", and the closer supervision of any official lapse.

Why, then, do officials still seek to delay reporting on work accidents, or omit, misrepresent or even lie about the facts? Why, in some parts of China, has this behaviour become the norm rather than the exception? The answer is that the gain from hiding the truth far outweighs the potential punishment if one were found out.

Private companies keep quiet about workplace accidents for fear of a loss of business, preferring to pay off the victims and their family. By contrast, the managers of state-owned enterprises don't care about the business; they worry about losing their position. Government officials have rather more to fear. They worry that they might be blamed for lax supervision; or they may have growth targets they are anxious to meet; or if corruption were involved in dealings with the company in trouble, they fear being found out. All in all, hiding the truth would seem the rational choice.

These distorted incentives must change. First, we should strengthen oversight. Within the system, the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference must step up their supervision of government power; outside the system, the public can be an effective watchdog. Increasingly, the media and internet users have played critical roles in the exposure of these cover-ups.

Second, any cover-up must be severely punished. Under new rules that took effect on January 9, the judiciary and state prosecutors will seek to deal more harshly with any failure of reporting that "prolongs the damage, causes it to be more serious, or delays rescue efforts". We can only hope this rule will be strictly enforced.

After the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, hopes were high that officials would henceforth be held accountable for any cover-up. It has been disappointing that, since then, some officials responsible for the Sars debacle, and others, were able to quietly make a comeback; some were even promoted. Clearly there's much work to be done. A more effective system is desperately needed in a place like Shanxi, which appears plagued by workplace accidents.

China can also learn from overseas experience. For example, Britain's 2004 Civil Contingencies Act sets out the government's responsibilities to inform and warn citizens in an emergency, and gives citizens the right to sue in case of a cover-up.

Whether or not those involved in a cover-up can be punished by law reflects the standards of governance. China needs to build a strong monitoring and accountability system, and get the incentives right, so that the cost of covering up an accident outweighs the benefits of doing so.

In Shanxi, officials have promised a thorough investigation into the aniline spill, and said they would punish anyone found guilty of a cover-up. We hope we don't have to wait long for action.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine. www.caing.com