In­ves­ti­ga­tions in China far from ideal


Hong Kong is pan­ick­ing at the dis­cov­ery that the drink­ing wa­ter sup­ply at sev­eral of its 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 in 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, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of the Om­buds­man and 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 Sept. 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, in­clud­ing by 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. Twit­ter: @FrankChing1

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