China: Is Harbin chemical spill, China’s Chernobyl?

The massive toxic chemical spill, which left the city of Harbin without running water for a week, has drawn global attention to the downside of China’s boom.

With a population of four million – nine million in the wider conurbation – Harbin is the largest city in northeast China and capital of Heilongjiang province. The events of the last week, which saw a rush to the airport and railway stations as many of the city’s wealthier inhabitants left the area, have thrown a spotlight on what one environmentalist has called China’s ”ecological suicide”.

The botched attempt at a cover-up, resembling the early Soviet denials of an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986, has further undermined confidence in the local ”communist” authorities at a time of growing unrest across China. The visit by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on 26 November, with a top level team of investigators, in an attempt to diffuse a storm of criticism in the regime-controlled press, underlines the political implications of the Harbin disaster. Addressing some of the 10,000 soldiers drafted into the city to deal with the emergency, Wen also apologised to Russia as the 80km toxic slick that has now passed through Harbin heads for Russia’s far-east and the city of Khabarovsk, home to 650,000 people.

Explosion in Jilin

The crisis began on 13 November, with an explosion at the Jilin Petrochemical Company, 350km upstream from Harbin in neighbouring Jilin province. The blast that left five workers dead and seventy injured, released 100 tonnes – the equivalent of 10 tanker loads – of deadly benzene and nitrobenzene into the Songhua River, Harbin’s main waterway and a tributary of the Amur River (Heilong in Chinese) that separates China from Russia. Unfortunately, rather than a freak accident, blasts such as the one in Jilin, are endemic in China, today.

On 28 November, the day Harbin’s water supply returned, a coal mine explosion killed 40 miners and left 138 trapped at the Dongfeng Mine, also in Heilongjiang province. Li Yizhong, the Beijing regiime’s works safety minister, visited the mine from Harbin, where he had been handling the water pollution investigation.

Just days earlier, yet another explosion at a chemical plant in Dianjiang County, in Chongqing, central China, killed one worker and led to the evacuation of 6,000 people after strong-smelling smoke enveloped the area. Wenran Jiang, a professor at the University of Alberta, identified the root cause of such accidents:”Private factories, public companies – everyone is cutting corners in the rush for money and profits.”

With one serious industrial explosion or pollution threat following on the heels of another, Beijing’s officialdom – in their attempts to show the situation is ”under control” – have their work cut out.

Clean-up may take years

The Jilin spill is China’s worst case of chemical pollution for years. At one point, the river’s nitrobenzene content was 103.6 times higher than normal. While officials in Harbin are preparing to announce the danger has passed, scientists warn that many of the problems caused by the spill may take years to show up, including birth defects and other long-term damage to people, plants and animals. If the river water freezes, there is a heightened risk the adjoining land will be contaminated, increasing the risk of the pollutants entering the food chain. And, as always in China, the rural population are even more exposed to such risks than their urban counterparts. The governor of Heilonjiang province expressed fears about information in rural areas. ”Some people may not be aware of the government’s announcement and may have mistakenly drawn water from the Songhua,” he said.

Tip of the iceberg

A spokesperson for Greenpeace in China warned that Harbin, "May be the tip of the iceberg for China’s environment.”

China’s double-digit growth, upon which the global capitalist system has become increasingly dependent, is being powered by reckless super-exploitation of labour, land and natural resources. This is creating an ecological wasteland:

  • 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted. Of the seven biggest rivers, only the Pearl and the Yangtze are rated good for water quality; the others are rated poor or dangerous.
  • 400 of 668 big cities suffer from water shortages.
  • In a recent survey, of 95% of urban drinking water samples tested was shown to be polluted, some with sewage. 40% of the raw sewage in Shenzhen – with 10 million people – is flushed directly into city waterways.
  • One-third of the rural population – an estimated 360m people – lack access to safe drinking water.
  • More than 30,000 children die each year from diarrhoea caused by contaminated water.

What plan?

Statistics for levels of air pollution, desertification, deforestation and soil erosion are equally shocking. This is the reality behind the Chinese regime’s talk of "green GDP”, and "rebalancing economic growth” to create a "harmonious society”. This was one of the central themes in the latest ‘Five Year Programme’ (previously called a plan) for the period 2006-2011, adopted in October. But with the private and foreign-invested sectors accounting for nearly 70% of non-farm GDP, the regime cannot ”plan” as it did in the days of the Stalinist planned economy. Even then, the lack of democratic workers’ management and control over industry – to check and ”rebalance” the workings of the economic plan – led to monumental mistakes, including massive environmental degradation. Today, however, the blind chase after profit – by capitalists, provincial governments and nominally "state-controlled” corporations – is the main factor powering an orgy of environmental hooliganism.

One example is the coal industry – the world’s biggest – which yearly claims the lives of around six thousand mineworkers (at least double this number in reality). With coal prices at historic highs, coal bosses and local governments simply ignore central government pleas to improve safety and close down the most dangerous pits. Aside from the human cost, however, China’s heavy reliance on coal (which provides 70% of its energy) has inflicted huge ecological damage. The province of Shanxi, China’s main coal-producing region, is literally sinking. One-seventh of the land in Shanxi – which is roughly twice the size of Austria – suffers from subsidence. China Daily reported from one village that has sunk by three metres during the last five years where "crevasses and pits can easily be seen and cattle have also fallen in and died.”

Cover up

The official version of the Harbin crisis is full of references to the steadfast and resolute action of the authorities. ”People have seen the government’s ability and decisiveness in dealing with the water shutdown, and the rapid victory has created confidence in the government,” was the predictable comment from the official Xinhua news agency.

In truth, a huge official mobilisation occurred – bringing more than 16,000 tonnes of drinking water by road – out of fear that the water shutdown would spark social unrest. The city now has a glut of bottled water!

But the central government’s intervention, culminating in Premier Wen’s visit, is yet another exercise in damage limitation. Revelations of an attempted cover-up by city officials and management of the Jilin Petrochemical Company, a subsidiary of the biggest state-owned oil company, Petrochina, have created a furore. Petrochina, "a modern profit machine” according to Business Week, is listed both at the New York Stock Exchange and in Hong Kong. Production at the factory in Jilin started only fifteen months ago.

At first, managers at the company tried to dilute the chemical slick by diverting water from a local reservoir into the Songhua, and only when this failed did they inform the Harbin authorities – five days after the explosion – on 18 November. In so doing, they urged city officials to deal quietly with the emergency rather than inform the public of the real situation. When water supplies were switched off on 21 November, Harbin officials first claimed this was for "routine repairs”. Only in the face of persistent questioning of the official version by sections of the state-run media, and after large numbers of dead fish began to surface, and false rumours of an imminent earthquake led to people sleeping outside in sub-zero temperatures, did the city authorities decide to reveal the true reason for the shutdown. This announcement came on 22 November – a full ten days after the Jilin explosion.

Remember Sars?

The fall-out from this botched cover-up may have effects as far-reaching as the chemical pollution itself. Many have drawn parallels with the way Beijing tried to conceal the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003.

The deputy general manager of CNPC, Zeng Yukang, was forced to make a humiliating statement of "sincere sympathy and deep apologies to riverside residents”. Similarly, Jiao Zhengzhong, Secretary of the Jilin Communist Party – one of the region’s top party bosses – had to drive to Harbin to deliver a public apology and several tonnes of drinking water. In an attempt to calm the public, reminiscent of the British Tory government’s antics during the ’mad cow disease’ outbreak, the governor of Heilongjiang province, Zhang Zuoji, promised to be the first person to drink tap water after supplies were restored.

”After four days, I’ll have the first drop,” he said. In fact, this is not to be recommended – although Harbin’s tap water is back on, authorities have instructed the public to wait five more days before drinking it.

Li Yizhong, the minister charged with conducting an enquiry, was forced to state on 27 November that officials found guilty of the cover-up may be prosecuted.

Some official press reports have published damning reports describing in detail the efforts by officials to cover up the chemical spill, including an admission by a provincial governor that officials in Harbin initially lied to the public about the reasons for shutting down the water supply, because they were ”awaiting instructions from senior party leaders”. By 25 November, on the eve of Wen’s visit to Harbin, the party’s central propaganda department issued orders to journalists to stop asking questions and to go home. But by this time the scandal had become common knowledge.

At the end of a year, which has seen mass struggles against environmental degradation, in particular the famous victory of villagers in Huaxi in Zhejiang province (as reported on the website chinaworker), who forced the closure of a polluting chemical factory, Harbin is another serious blow to the prestige of China’s pro-capitalist dictators.

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November 2005