Saturday, November 26, 2005

China's Press Kicks Some...

So you know how I'm always pontificating about how a grassroots environmental movement has the potential to be a democratizing force in China? Newsweek thinks so too:
In China, where the ruling Communist Party discourages or outright crushes any attempts at grass-roots movements, environmental protection is one of the only areas of activism that is thriving. Led by an increasingly feisty domestic media, some crusading lawyers and a few maverick bureaucrats, the Chinese are beginning to demand information from corporations and their government about the harmful effects of rapid economic development on the environment. In some cases, the public pressure has worked; in a few cases, even the state agency that regulates the environment has joined sides with environmentalists.
More notably, the Newsweek account contains a fascinating chronology of who knew what when, and just how important the role of China's press was in exposing the disaster:
On Monday afternoon, Nov. 21, an editor at one of China’s most aggressive magazines, China Newsweek (not related to this publication), spotted a curious headline on the Internet. Harbin officials had announced they were cutting off water to residents for four days to make repairs. Finding it odd that an entire city’s water supply would be shut down at once, the editor called her boss to brainstorm. Rumors that an imminent earthquake was behind the mysterious “repairs” had been circulating on the Internet, but the two editors’ suspected the recent chemical plant explosion in Jilin was behind the mysterious shutdown. When they consulted maps of the two provinces and the location of the plant, they agreed the two events must be related.

With only 24 hours to press time, China Newsweek called a well-placed source in Harbin, who all but confirmed their suspicions. “He said the river had been contaminated, but the government had not publicized this,” the editor told NEWSWEEK. At dawn, the magazine sent three reporters to Jilin and Harbin to get the story, before the government intervened to stop them. “We knew that if we didn’t do the story then, we might not be able to do it the next week,” said an editor, who asked that she not be named because of the sensitive nature of the situation. “The seriousness of this incident could affect the future of a lot of officials in the Northeast.”

The China Newsweek story came out Nov. 24, about one day after the country’s environmental regulators finally owned up to the contamination that had left more than three million people who lived in and around Harbin without running water. The story provided details about which government officials knew what and when. It reported that the governor of Heilongjiang province had told 400 officials in a closed meeting that the city of Harbin had lied about the water-supply shutdown because it was waiting for permission from higher authorities to disclose the spill and didn’t want to contradict Jilin official reports. And it said that the cover-up ended only after provincial officials in Heilongjiang sent a desperate request for guidance to the central government. The editor of China Newsweek said she hoped the story would show people the harm done by “the conflicting interests of government officials from neighboring parts of the river.”
CDT also links to a fascinating blog from a Chinese journalist, and Jilin native, who provides an insider's look at the factory where the disaster originated. Here's a taste:
The political rumors in Beijing these past few days are that the governor or party chief of Jilin Province and the CEO of CNPC will soon be sacked and replaced. Maybe not so fast. But one thing is for sure: for lower-level bureacrats, heads are going to roll. At least I hope so. Roll, roll, you stupid heads. There has been so many mayors of Jilin in recent years that even my parents lost count. And the local chief manager of CNPC's Jilin subsidiary looks like dead meat. Workers were already complaining so much about this guy. Fascist, was the word the used the most. Apparently this guy, Yu Li, introduced draconian rules and is pathetically obsessed with appearnce: workers are fined when they don't don their uniforms and masks neatly, when they forget to put on a name badge for work, when they don't walk in a straight line on factory grouds -- hell, sounds like first-years at Westpoint. All workers must put down whatever they are doing when there's a snowstorm in the winter, to clean snow off the paths, or somebody will be find. "My first concern everyday was not safe production anymore," a distant relative who works at 101st Factory told me. "It was making sure I look OK for the job. I had to check if I was wearing my badge properly when I rushed to the explosion site during the rescue -- I was afaid I'd be fined even when I was trying to dillute toxic chemicals and save lives."
Be sure to check out the Newsweek article and especially, the blog - there's lots more.

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