China's Katrina

Bungling, delay, cover-up. When such missteps follow a major disaster, officials often have to resign. We saw it unfold in the United States after the killer hurricane Katrina. Now we're seeing heads roll in China, following the Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion that killed five people and spilled 100 tons of benzene-like carcinogens into the Songhua River.

There are sackings, and then there are sackings. In China, who's getting the axe and how--bureaucratically speaking, that is--holds greater symbolic and political significance than in many other countries. Here, all eyes are focused on the fallout of the massive chemical spill that forced Harbin city's four million residents to go without running water for five days--and that now is slated to float by the Russian city of Khabarovsk this weekend.

Much is at stake. Even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, on an official visit to Paris, referred to the Harbin pollution in a lament over the high number of industrial accidents on the mainland, and confessed that he'd stayed up until nearly midnight "reviewing documents" about the chemical spill the night before leaving for France. "I was still reviewing them this morning before getting on the plane."

In Beijing, the Chinese blame game is raging something fierce. The flurry of finger-pointing isn't just about local authorities blaming the central government--the same issues that erupted post-Katrina--in Beijing, the deeper controversy is also about economic priorities. Which is more important: the helter-skelter red-hot growth of China's GDP or more balanced and green efforts to save the environment?

China is notoriously polluted. Direct environmental damage is believed to cost the government nearly 10 percent of its $1.4 trillion economy. The post-spill personnel reshuffling, as one Beijing-based reporter put it, could signal whether mainland leaders intend to "sacrifice environmental protection for the sake of GDP growth, or vice versa." (The reporter refused to be quoted by name because the topic remains so sensitive that he could lose his job for speaking to a foreign journalist.)

In the behind-the-scenes tussle between the pro-environment faction and the pro-GDP lobby, the greens are losing so far. Oh sure, on Monday the general manager of Jilin Petrochemical was sacked by its parent company, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), one of the country's largest oil firms. Two workshop managers at the Jilin plant, where the blast occurred, were also fired. Senior CNPC official Jiang Jiemin blamed the three for causing "great casualties and economic losses" which led to "bad publicity from the international community and hurt the whole image of CNPC."

But by far the most senior official to lose his job, up to now, is the head of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, Xie Zhenhua, 56. Xie's forced resignation last Friday triggered a howl of protest among environmental activists and political analysts who fear he's being made a scapegoat. Prof. Mao Shoulong, an outspoken mainland academic and an expert in governance, likened Xie's fate to that of a traffic cop who responds to the scene of an accident only to be sacked even before anyone manages to figure out who's at fault.

A high-level probe is underway. It's already becoming evident that provincial authorities in Jilin--where the explosion took place--and senior CNPC figures downplayed the extent of the catastrophe, hindering official responses. The day after the blast, Xie had received a phone call from a senior Jilin provincial official who told the environmental protection agency head that the Songhua River contamination was not that serious and could be handled by provincial authorities on their own, says a source close to SEPA officials who requested anonymity because he wasn't cleared to speak publicly about the incident.

The other problem, he says, is that the "local environmental protection department...reports to local authorities." It's supposed to notify SEPA in Beijing about environmental matters--but its salaries are paid by the government in its region, not by Beijing. So the local environmental protection department didn't report the results of water quality tests from the Songhua River to SEPA until Nov. 17--a full four days after the explosion, according to SEPA deputy director Wang Yuqing, who also charged that China's blind pursuit of economic growth has led to a quarter century of growing environmental degradation.

The state environmental protection agency didn't immediately dispatch its own inspectors to Jilin. And while Jilin authorities informed downstream communities in their own province about the toxic spill, they at first neglected to inform their counterparts further downstream in neighboring Heilongjiang province. Jilin provincial authorities even ordered enormous amounts of water to be released from a dam into the Songhua river in an attempt to dilute the pollution within Jilin's borders "which served to push the slick towards Heilongjiang even faster," says the source. When Premier Wen visited the region on an emergency inspection tour in late November, Xie was among a group of government and party officials who accompanied him. The same Jilin boss was among those who met Wen at the Harbin airport, and in a subsequent briefing he at one point turned to Xie and said something to the effect of "Didn't I call you right afterwards?", according to the source close to SEPA. Xie was reportedly stunned and could only stammer "Yes, yes" in response, says the source, who adds, "What else could Xie say? That he knew [about the extent of the pollution] but helped the Jilin people cover it up? This obviously made a bad impression on Wen."

Last Friday the State Council--the equivalent of China's cabinet--stated that SEPA "has failed to pay sufficient attention to the incident and underestimated its possible impact." Still, Internet blogs and bulletin boards have begun to express sympathy for Xie. That may be due partly to SEPA's surprising transformation from a toothless bureaucratic backwater into an agency that dares to challenge Big Industry.

Recently, SEPA has been engaged in a David-and-Goliath tussle against powerful interest groups. Earlier this year, Xie's outspoken deputy Pan Yue successfully waged a high-profile campaign to temporarily freeze 30 major construction projects, including prestigious hydropower plants on the Yangtze River, because they had proceeded illegally without the required environmental impact studies. Pan and SEPA were seen to have won the support of Premier Wen in this endeavor. But their success antagonized what political insiders call the "GDP lobby", including key ministries and industry giants such as State Power, the Three Gorges Dam Group, CNPC and above all the State Development Planning Commission, a powerful super-ministry.

Will heads continue to roll within the ranks of local authorities and CNPC officials? Much depends on results from the current probe--and on how far President Hu Jintao intends to push his campaign to boost official accountability. In 2003, his regime sacked the then-health minister and Beijing mayor when they initially tried to cover-up China's deadly SARS outbreak.

The big difference today is that some very important interests of some very important players--both government and industry heavyweights--hang in the balance. Even the speed of GPD growth may be affected; China's pro-environment faction is pushing for adoption of a new measure called "green GDP" which would help gauge the health and sustainability of economic growth, not simply its speed. All this is undoubtedly complicating the investigation. It make take some time for us to know precisely who knew what, and when--and what they didn't do about it. With Jonathan Ansfield in Beijing