Fatal boat disaster

A FIRE on board a tourist boat cruising on the Thousand Island Lake (Qiandao) in China's Zhejiang province Thursday killed all 24 tourists from Taiwan, two guides and six crew members. The accident has sparked angry reactions from Taiwan's tour agents who often grumble about poor safety conditions in the mainland. This time, however, their complaints go beyond safety issues.

The Taipei Travel Agents Association, upset by the lack of details about the fatal incident, has called on fellow members to temporarily suspend sending tour groups to China. Several days after the accident occurred, few details have trickled out of official Chinese channels. Frustrated by what seemed to be a news blackout, the Taiwan media speculated that the Taiwanese tourists were murdered by pirates before their bodies were burned. Other reports suggest that the tourists' personal belongings were all missing, denied last night by a China News Service report.

The Taiwan press speculation, probably triggered by anger and anguish, was unnecessary had the Zhejiang authorities released more information on the accident. Their secretive handling of investigations into the fire was denounced yesterday by Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation, the semi-official body which handles ties with China. It issued a strong protest against China's refusal to let a junior foundation official visit the site and monitor the investigation.

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong and Taiwan people travel to China on business and for pleasure every year; ostensibly they are extremely concerned about such fatal disasters. The Hong Kong media, meanwhile, do not seem to have any more luck in obtaining information from the provincial authorities. Just take a look at how Chinese officials handled air disasters in the past, and it should surprise nobody that they are not forthcoming in providing details. They apparently treat information such as causes of accidents as secrets that must be vetted by the top brass in Beijing. The process may take days if not weeks.

Such a callous practice needs to be abandoned. Can't Chinese authorities be more sympathetic towards family members of the victims thousands of miles from the accident sites? They are desperate to know whether their loved ones survived. Any tiny bits andpieces of information will help. Tourism is one of China's main foreign exchange earners, with about two million Taiwanese tourists visiting the mainland last year. At times of accidents and disasters, prompt disclosure of information will help demonstratethat Beijing does care.