In September, China’s central government announced that death tolls from natural disasters would no longer be classified as state secrets. The initiative, announced appropriately enough by the National Administration of State Secrets, was presented as partial fulfilment of the government’s long-standing pledge to improve transparency.
The shadowy body oversees the classification of data and sanctions the suppression of often commonplace information deemed dangerous to the state. Its mere existence is evidence enough of how seriously China and the ruling Communist party have taken matters of secrecy. Indeed, secrecy remains the reflex response – as the people of Harbin discovered last week when their water was cut off.
City and provincial governments had alternately lied and obfuscated for more than a week after explosions at a chemical plant in north-east China on November 13 dumped 100 tonnes of benzene into the Songhua river, the main source of water for cities along its route. When Harbin decided to turn off the taps last Tuesday, its 9m residents were first told by the city government that the water system was being closed for “maintenance”. A few hours later, the authorities reversed course and admitted the Songhua had been contaminated.
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