Last Saturday in Handan, a city of 1.3 million people in northern China, the water just turned off. The local government made the quick decision after a chemical leak that had occurred upstream five days earlier, in the city of Changzhi, could apparently no longer be covered up. After citizens took to the web to demand an explanation for why they hadn't been informed of the leak, the reply from Wang Yiping, an official in Changzhi, was classic propaganda chief.
We report in accordance with the procedures, we didn’t delay the report for five days. As long as the pollution is within the Changzhi boundary, it’s not necessary to report to the provincial government, we can deal with it on our own, we only need to report to the provincial government if the pollution goes out of Changzhi city. I’m not sure about the details.
But the residents of Handan were sure. Nine tons of aniline, a toxic chemical, had driven their water supply over seven hundred times above a safe limit.
The incident has received little attention outside China--it's just one of thousands of water pollution accidents in the country every year--but it's ignited a fresh firestorm over censorship just as Beijing's new government appears to be clamping down on free speech in traditional and online media.
On December 31, 2012, a chemical leak at a state-owned industrial plant in the city of Changzhi, in neighboring Shanxi province, began to leak nine tons of aniline into the Zhanghe river. An additional 30 tons of the benzene derivative, which is used as a precursor in the manufacture of pigments, herbicides and polyurethane, leaked into a disused reservoir. But the contamination, affecting Handan's main water supply, was not reported by the local government until Saturday, after the city’s water was cut off without warning. Water was restored a day later, on Sunday, after the city could switch to an underground source.
"I deeply apologise for this, which was the result of insufficient understanding and vigilance about environmental pollution events," said the mayor of Changzhi, according to the People's Daily. The Financial Times reported that Changzhi officials ordered the closure of 112 chemical plants for emergency inspections. Pressure has fallen on the province's acting governor Li Xiaopeng, the son of unpopular former Chinese prime minister Li Peng.
The internet hasn't bought Shanxi's excuse or accepted its apology. "It is obvious that this argument is sophistry. Wouldn't it be too late to report it, if it had already affected other cities?" Zhu Lijia, a professor of public administration with the Chinese Academy of Governance, wrote on Sina Weibo. He wasn't alone: according to Global Voices Online, a search on Sina Weibo for news of the incident on Sunday yielded a whopping 2,933,094 results, making it the service's most trending topic that day. One user based in Handan wrote
We've been drinking contaminated water for five days, it’s hard to imagine the consequences. Who will take responsibility for this? Who can afford to take responsibility? There is no other way, I suggest that everyone go pump their stomachs to clear it. However, we can do nothing to eliminate the hazards the pollution has brought upon us, we always live under the threat from the unknown truth, it’s nerve-racking!
Ma Jun, director of the non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, told the Wall Street Journal that the incident was "serious" because of both the amount of pollutants and the toxicity of aniline. The bigger problem however was the delay. "The government should do a thorough investigation," Mr. Ma said.
The incident happened just as censorship was becoming a hot topic across the Chinese internet and in the country's more progressive newsrooms. In Guangzhou, in the south, a fight erupted after censors replaced an editorial in the liberal newspaper Southern Weekend that called for realizing a “dream of constitutionalism in China” with an article in praise of the Communist Party. By Monday, public unrest over the censorship began spilling out onto the streets.
Beijing's censors are mostly tolerant of online public complaints--provided they don't attack the censors themselves, and that they don't spread to the real world. But the rare protests outside the newspaper's office over the weekend have called for freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free elections, to shouts of approval from the dozens who gathered to watch. None of the twenty police at the scene made any effort to stop the speakers or remove signs. One large banner held up by two men said simply: Free China. At one point someone shouted, “Down with the Communist Party. The Communist Party must step down!” Striking newspaper editors have returned to work, and there's talk about the resignation of the local propaganda chief.
Policemen separate a supporter of Southern Weekly from counter-protesting leftists, outside its office in Guangzhou
But the fallout has even spread to Beijing. Last night, editors at the Beijing News, a Southern Weekly sister publication, lost a dramatic stand-off with authorities over the reprinting of a pro-government editorial that argued that supporters of the newspaper's freedoms were being supported by overseas human-rights activists. The Beijing News was threatened with closure, and its publisher, Dai Zigeng, and editor-in-chief, Wang Yuechun, threatened to resign. "We really don’t understand," one of the paper's reporters told the Journal. "It’s not enough that the Beijing News is subject to daily censorship notices and inspections? It now appears they can kill a news organization as easily as they can kill an ant."
Another new rule is aimed at reinforcing self-censorship online: it stipulates that bloggers must use their real names, effectively killing the veil that allows amateur muckrakers to uncover corruption, pollution, and other social injustices. (See an interview with the director behind High Tech Low Life, a new documentary about two bloggers in China.) “After the internet real-name registration comes into effect, online anti-corruption efforts will be a thing of the past,” tweeted Duan Wanjin, a lawyer in Xian, on Sina Weibo on Saturday night. “In the future, if citizens want to report wrongdoers online, they’ll have to handle themselves like suicide bombers, dying but succeeding for a righteous cause."
Party-run newspapers like People’s Daily insist that disclosing their identities to the government will help the government give China’s netizens more privacy. On Sunday the Global Times looked for the silver lining in the new law. “It regulates for the first time that the State should protect online information that bears someone’s personal identity and relates to privacy, along with punitive measures for violations," read an editorial. In spite of other ratcheting-up around the Chinese internet (after country-wide outages, the Great Firewall has possibly been upgraded, and Google just stopped alerting users if their searches are being censored) many are banking, no doubt, on the government's inability to enforce rules like this. They're also poking fun at the whole idea, given that People's Daily's editorials are unsigned.
As Adam Minter noted at Bloomberg, more literary-minded critics have blogged that many of China’s revolutionary heroes used pseudonyms. As Xi’an Dragon, a Sina Weibo microblogger in Xi’an, writes, “If Lu Xun [the seminal Chinese writer] and Mao Zedong were still alive, I’d ask their opinion of real name registration. After all, Lu Xun had many pen names and Mao Zedong also published many articles under many names in many newspapers. Internet real-name registration will become the darkest political scandal in human history: the Real- Name Registration Scandal.”
The bigger irony is that even as the real-name registration bug spreads across China, data on the property holdings of the country's officials--the target of long-promised transparency reforms--remain hidden from the public. That makes it hard to make officials accountable, which makes it harder to avoid deadly accidents, from high-speed train crashes to toxic rivers.
An editor at ifeng news, Meng Hui, put it more simply:
新闻自由，关系到亿万生灵的生命 -- Press freedom concerns thousands of lives.
Even after a decade of other health- and environmental-related cover-ups, the memory of the government's notorious concealment of a 2003 SARS outbreak that killed over 300 people still hasn't faded.
According to Xinhua, river-water samples taken near the Shanxi and Hebei border on Saturday had reached nearly 720 times the accepted level of aniline at one point. The chemical is a probable carcinogen and can cause liver and kidney damage if consumed in large amounts.