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WHAT WE THINK
Toxic toll of China's market madness

December 2, 2005 | Page 3

TOP CHINESE government officials are scrambling to control the damage as a 50-mile toxic chemical slick flows down the Songhua River in the country's northeast. But the damage they're most concerned about is to their image.

First, there was the cover-up of risky industrial practices, after officials in Jilin denied any environmental threats from a November 13 explosion that killed five workers at a state-owned petrochemical plant. Ten days later, top officials in the ruling Communist Party were forced to reveal that the accident dumped 100 tons of cancer-causing benzene and nitrobenzene into the river.

The news didn't emerge until officials in Harbin, a downstream city of 3.8 million, had to explain why they needed to shut off the city's water supply for five days as the chemical slick passed by.

When the taps got reopened last weekend, Prime Minister Wen Jibao flew to Harbin for a series of photo ops, where he promised to punish company officials responsible for the accident and government officials responsible for the cover-up. Wen's visit recalled his 2003 public-relations trip to SARS-stricken Hong Kong after the regime suppressed news of a previous outbreak in neighboring Guangdong Province.

But no sooner had water service been restored in Harbin when news emerged of a local coal-mine explosion that left at least 143 miners dead and 15 missing as Socialist Worker went to press.

The roots of these disasters lie in China's breakneck economic growth--the result of the regime's wholehearted embrace of the free market.

Workers have paid the price for this free-market madness. Rates of industrial accidents and environmental disasters are almost certainly the highest in the world--and are made worse by widespread official indifference to public health.

In response, there has been a sharp rise in strikes and protests in the past two years. Officially recognized "mass incidents" grew from 58,000 in 2003 to 74,000 in 2004.

Typically, top officials try to punish "corruption" at the lowest and most local level--to divert blame from themselves and the whole bureaucratic system. But even when they dodge the blame, their credibility falls. "We are in the midst of a growing gap between official and unofficial views Chinese hold," one analyst told the Christian Science Monitor. "Every Chinese knows what they must think officially. But between that and what they do think is a wider gap."

This gap is setting the stage for the struggles in China's future.

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