Damage Control: Chinese press leaks on the big spill

Pity China’s propaganda-meisters. Since the truth broke that the Songhua River was accidentally spiked with a blast of benzene, the party’s Central Publicity Department (CPD), charged with the somewhat absurd task of covering up a screwed-up cover-up, have tried and failed twice. The mess has only gotten uglier. Now the spokesman who first sounded of the deception, Jilin vice-mayor Wang Wei, is dead. So no more Mr. Nice Nanny. On Friday, December 9, the CPD summoned ranking editors from central-level media to a briefing and directed them to quit reporting on the scandal once and for all, other editors briefed on the session say. This time around, two official sources say, President Hu Jintao himself has piped in with orders to keep the death of vice-mayor Wang under wraps, at least for now. Can the media minders get the job done this time? Herewith a quick summary of their cat-and-mouse with reporters since the scandal started..


SCANDAL WEEK 1: Typical story: too little, too late. Around Nov. 25, as Harbiners lined up for water handouts, the CPD tried a routine gag order on unofficial reports hyping, probing or otherwise meddling in the crisis, journalists say. But by that time, the best and brightest Chinese journos already had a beat on the story. One leading Chinese magazine that got around the CPD warnings was Caijing. Reporters there took a number of precautions, including collecting their own water samples as they drove the stretch from Harbin and Jilin, lest the government not reveal toxicity levels (soon enough, it did). Another reporter, from China Newsweek, managed to eavesdrop on Heilongjiang provincial governor Zhang Zuoji as he rambled on about why Harbin initially had to cop a lame excuse – “inspection and repairs” – to cut off the whole city’s water for days. How? “A source helped our reporter sneak into the meeting in Harbin,” explained a senior editor at the magazine. The damaging China Newsweek scoop later became the basis of many a dispatch in the international press.

To be fair to the propagandists, their earliest warnings were undercut by other voices in the government. In Harbin, many officials were shooting off their mouths to reporters, which was a quick way to wash their hands of responsibility (not that it’s ever difficult to get ticked-off Northeasterners to talk). In addition, when the State Council finally did give Harbin the go-ahead to “tell the true situation to the people”, late on Nov. 21, the buzz among Chinese reporters was that that order came straight from Premier Wen Jiabao (See, for example, the Godard blogger’s Nov. 24 account: “Remembering an Unfinished Art Installation”).

SCANDAL WEEK 2: The devil’s in the details. So the next week (Nov.28), faced with stiff media resistance and populist pressure, the CPD tried elaborating on its reporting ban with a shortlist of cardinal sins. These included, in no particular order:

1) the Jilin vs. Heilongjiang angle (bad for Songhua delta relations)
2) the SEPA (State Environmental Protection Agency) vs. CNPC (China National Petrochemical Corp) angle (bad for state cabinet morale)
3) the China-Russia angle (bad for diplomacy)
4) any other angle questioning or blaming (wenze) the government, or reflecting (fansi) on what exactly happened (all in all, just plain bad).

Different editors gave different interpretations of the guidance. But taken together, the list didn’t leave much to write about. Thus most newspapers began to march in lockstep with the Xinhua news agency. But not all. Window to the South, the Guangzhou-based biweekly, took the middle path. It ran a risque cover on the incident – “Failed ‘Secret-Keeping'” – without a story inside (just a scathing page-one editorial). Sanlian Life Weekly, meanwhile, interviewed Harbin’s leaders and went to town with a 20-page cover about the 96-hour crisis.

SCANDAL WEEK 3: Obviously China’s press have learned to smell a rat. The resignation of SEPA’s award-winning boss, Xie Zhenhua, was announced on Dec.2 – before the cabinet probe into the accident and cover-up had even begun. Sympathetic outlets could not help but wonder aloud, why? The once-revolutionary Southern Weekend did the safe thing. Its story, “Why Xie Zhenhua?” leaned the way of Beijing’s current verdict on the matter. In it, Jilin province officials contend that they reported up to SEPA on Nov. 13-14 (though they say nothing about what they reported); and a colleague of Xie’s says he did indeed drop the ball. Yet others, including Shanghai-based Diyi Caijing, demanded the blame game not simply stop with one well-meaning technocrat. Enter China Newsweek once more, this time with mound of inside dirt on the foot-dragging, power-playing and backstabbing in Jilin province. Its second cover expose on the story, “Xie Zhenhua’s resignation and the True Face of the Songhua River pollution,” hit newstands on Dec.8. Among the many highlights:

-Xie’s “resignation” was settled by November 28, a source close to SEPA notes, four days before it was announced.

-Immediately after the Nov. 13 blast at the CNPC branch in Jilin city, an environmental official in the city reveals, the command team at the site of the accident did not allow the city environmental bureau in to inspect – only researchers from a local academy under the control of CNPC. On the city’s official statement the day after the blast, the local environmental bureau was not even listed among those government departments present at the scene. Groans the Jilin official:

“If they say we missed the best time to do something, what will we do then?”

– Immediately fter the Nov. 13 blast, engineers assumed the plan would let the fire consume the benzene, attests a senior engineer at the Jilin branch, Wang Fengshan. But at 4 a.m. on Nov. 14, Wang received news that the fire already had been extinguished. It was then that he realized that the chemicals must have leaked into the Songhua somehow. There is a protective dyke between the river and the tanks, so the processed benzene should not have flowed into the Songhua, says Wang:

“…unless it was intentionally drained into the river.”

-Work at the environmental departments in Jilin province was “very quiet” on Nov. 13-14, remembers Zhao Jing, the environmental inspection station chief in the city of Changchun, downriver from Jilin. Not until Nov. 15 at 4 p.m., more than two days after the blast, did he receive a phone call from his boss at the Changchun environmental protection bureau, Zhang Junxian, who told him the Songhua was polluted and ordered him to inspect levels of benzene and other toxins immediately. Zhao asked his superior three questions at the time:

How bad is the pollution?
The bureau chief replied, ‘We still don’t know.’
What caused it?
The bureau chief replied, ‘Do not ask.’
Have we activated the emergency response and prevention plan for sudden environmental incidents?
The bureau chief replied, ‘Wait to receive notice.’

Unfortunately, China Newsweek has yet to upload its latest bombshell online. That’s because the magazine “met with severe criticism, so it cannot go on the Web,” someone close to the magazine confessed on Monday. Not to fret: the publication is expected to scrape by with a stern warning.

SCANDAL WEEK 4: Of course, this was all fun and games until someone got hurt. Wang Wei, the vice-mayor of Jilin who kicked off the cover-up with public denials of the toxic fallout, turned up dead by his own hand. He was about to be interrogated at the by government investigators. The talk within the trade is that at least two newspapers nearly went to print with reports of Wang’s suicide right after the fact. But a national editor at one of them, The Beijing News, denied the paper had any such plan. So far, not a peep about Wang has emerged in the Chinese press. Reinforcing how politically serious this wholly preventable crisis has become, the CPD held a little chuifeng hui (lit. ‘blow-air’ session) on December 9 with chief eds of central-level media in Beijing. The message at the meeting was to quit reporting on the scandal once and for all, editors briefed on the session say. This time, two other official sources say, President Hu Jintao himself has waded in with a written order (pishi) to prevent any domestic leaks on the death of vice-mayor Wang.

How long can Beijing hold back? Well, back in 1995, Beijing’s vice-mayor Wang Baosen also offed himself just as an anti-corruption storm was bearing down on him. It took just four days for Xinhua to release the news in English (to close the info gap the Western news services), but a few weeks longer for it to come out in Chinese, by which time the storm had grown powerful enough to swallow the capital’s party boss Chen Xitong and in turn, help then-President Jiang Zemin conveniently vanquish a rival. In the interim, the closest the mainland press got to touching the Wang Baosen story was a famously suggestive piece of revisionist history in the Beijing Daily that questioned whether the tragic suicide of Qu Yuan, the minister-poet exiled during the Spring and Autumn Period, just might have been a murder. Xinhua may be gifted a domestic exclusive on this vice-mayor’s death too, but given the high metabolism of the Chinese media today, the news seemingly would have to come much faster. Even late last week, one leading Beijing magazine was bullish on breaking the Wang Wei story, before deciding at the last minute to hold off. According to a reporter there, the magazine found that the government has formed a new task force to investigate the Jilin coverup. It is said to include central prosecutors. Meanwhile, the original probe in Jilin has ground to a virtual halt since Wang’s death. This makes sense, since that probe’s presumed target – Wang Wei – is no longer a very good option. Before Wang can be pronounced officially dead, perhaps some other senior cadre in Jilin – or a bunch of them – will be chosen to take his place.