21 October 2016
Residents evacuated from their homes after the Tianjin explosions take part in a rally on Aug. 19. The protesters were demanding proper compensation for their destroyed homes. Photo: Reuters
Residents evacuated from their homes after the Tianjin explosions take part in a rally on Aug. 19. The protesters were demanding proper compensation for their destroyed homes. Photo: Reuters

What China can learn after the Tianjin disaster

Hong Kong is panicking at the discovery that drinking water supply at several public housing estates is contaminated, with samples showing lead that exceeds the World Health Organization’s guideline of 10 micrograms per liter.

Last week, excessive lead was found in water at a primary school. With the end of the summer holidays in September, more such discoveries may lie ahead.

The Hong Kong government has set up a task force to look into the safety of water pipes, and created a review committee on the water supply of housing estates.

But its most important decision by far was the appointment of a commission of inquiry, headed by a judge, “to conduct an independent and comprehensive investigation”.

Such commissions are part of Hong Kong’s tradition. The British colonial government, between 1966 and the handover to China in 1997, set up commissions of inquiry 12 times to look into such issues as the cause of riots, a fire on a floating restaurant that claimed 34 lives, and the flight from Hong Kong of a police chief superintendent wanted on corruption charges.

The strength of such inquiries is that they are conducted by individuals of standing in the community who, while appointed by the government, act independently. Often, such inquiries are headed by judges.

In the current lead-in-water case, the commission is headed by Justice Andrew Chan, a high court judge. Its other commissioner is Alan Lai, who is a former director of the Office of the Ombudsman and a former commissioner of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The commission’s terms of reference are to ascertain the causes of excess lead found in drinking water in public rental housing developments; to review and evaluate the adequacy of the present regulatory and monitory system in respect of drinking water supply in Hong Kong; and to make recommendations with regard to the safety of drinking water in Hong Kong.

These events are occurring at a time when the Chinese Government is confronting a crisis of confidence of its own after an industrial accident in the port city of Tianjin, where explosions at a chemical warehouse claimed 121 lives.

Premier Li Keqiang promised to “release information to society in an open and transparent manner”. But the Communist party’s propaganda apparatus has moved in as usual and demanded: “Use only copy from Xinhua and authoritative departments and media…. Do not make live broadcasts.”

The Financial Times quoted Yang Jie, the father of a missing 23-year-old firefighter, as saying: “They keep telling us, ‘Don’t make the Chinese people lose face’”. So, to save the face of the Communist party, it seems, the truth must be suppressed.

Cyanide has been detected in the soil near the blast sites, but a Chinese official, Tian Weiyong, director of the environmental emergency center of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, was quoted as saying that the level does not exceed the national standard.

However, we are not told what the Chinese standard is and how it compares with WHO guidelines.

Significantly, if Chinese standards were to apply in Hong Kong, none of the tested water samples would be alarming. While some of them exceed WHO guidelines by more than four times, they still fall within China’s standard, which is 50 micrograms of lead per liter of water, five times that of the WHO.

Interestingly, the official People’s Daily has published a commentary saying that China needs to learn from the West on how to work with the media when dealing with a crisis.

“We always want to play down the disaster, with the motivation to not arouse panic,” it said. But, ironically, the commentary conceded, when people are denied information, they turn to rumors and may panic.

Citing disasters such as the 9/11 World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina, the People’s Daily said the United States first releases the “worst possible” news and thus “gains the initiative” when later figures show that things were not so bad after all.

Another thing that China can learn from the outside world is the creation of an independent body, such as a commission of inquiry, to show its determination to uncover the truth, regardless of where it leads. Such commissions are used around the world by governments and organizations, including the United Nations.

Setting up such a commission lifts a huge burden from the government’s shoulders. The trouble is that, in China, the Communist Party won’t let anyone else investigate.

Another problem is identifying suitable individuals to serve. After all, there is no independent judiciary, no Independent Commission Against Corruption and no Office of the Ombudsman where people of integrity may flourish.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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