China orders transparent handling of major accidents after fatal train crash Wednesday, August 3, 2011

China's central government has ordered increased transparency in the handling of major accidents and other items of public concern following a fatal high-speed train crash last month.

The general offices of the State Council, or China's Cabinet, and the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee said in a circular issued on Tuesday that information on major emergencies and items of public concern, such as the results of official investigations and the measures the government has taken to handle the emergencies, should be released to the public in an "objective and timely manner."

Governments at all levels should respond to the public's concerns in a timely fashion and provide proper guidance for public opinion, the circular said.

The document was issued just 10 days after a high-speed train crash in east China's city of Wenzhou left 40 people dead and 191 others injured. Explanations given by railway authorities have raised public doubts about the true cause of the accident, as well as the government's subsequent investigation.

"Information dispersal and public relation management were not properly conducted after the train crash," said Professor Xie Yungeng, an expert on media economics and management at Shanghai Communications University.

Xie said many officials are unaware of the powerful influence of microblogs, which have become a primary source of information for China's citizens and played a large role in facilitating public debate in the aftermath of the July 23 train crash.


During his trip to Wenzhou last week, Premier Wen Jiabao said the government's investigation into the train crash will be open, transparent and under public supervision, adding that investigators will "pay careful attention to public opinion."

Only by publicly disclosing the truth can the aftermath of the accident be handled properly, Wen said.

He also urged the Ministry of Railways to give an "honest answer" to the people regarding its actions following the crash. Many of the country's citizens believe that the ministry moved too hastily in the aftermath of the incident, raising questions about the ministry's ability to manage its own public image.

Tuesday's circular also stipulated that government authorities are responsible for keeping people informed about what is happening during major emergencies.

Yu Fang, a disease control official from Shangcheng County in central China's Henan Province knows all too well what can happen when local governments fail to inform their constituents.

He recalled an incident last summer in which more than 100 local residents were bitten by ticks, resulting in one death and the infection of dozens of others. The Shangcheng County government was blamed for not disclosing information about the danger of ticks in time for the residents to protect themselves.


"Some officials don't even know what microblogs are," Prof. Xie said regarding the online responses to the train crash. "They lack an awareness of new media. They are too arrogant to care."

Internet users flooded major microblogging sites after the crash, questioning the government's handling of the accident and offering condolences to the victims.

Microblogging services enjoyed "explosive growth" in the first six months of this year, with the number of registered microblog users surging by 208.9 percent to reach 195 million, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

The People's Daily, or the CPC's flagship newspaper, urged officials on Tuesday to answer questions from Internet users in a timely and accurate fashion and to brush up on their online communication skills in an article titled "How to speak in the microblog era."

The article encouraged officials to address public concerns through online platforms and not to shy away from answering thorny questions.

"Online performance reflects an official's all-around capability," the article said.

Government departments have also been urged to focus on building their own official websites in order to improve the way in which significant information is disclosed. "All official documents that are not classified should be published on government websites," said Tuesday's circular.


China created a landmark government transparency regulation in 2008, asking administrative agencies to disclose information that is relevant to the public's interests.

In May of this year, the State Council asked the country's central government departments to publicize their spending on overseas trips, vehicles and receptions, three items that are commonly believed by the public to be sources of corruption and waste.

Reports of officials using government-purchased cars for personal use, as well as tales of private parties and seminars funded with public money, have triggered widespread public outrage.

As of August 1, more than 90 central government departments have publicized their spending on overseas trips, vehicles and receptions, marking a concrete step toward the creation of a transparent and clean government.

The latest circular from the central government ordered all government departments to publicize the information "step by step."

Editor: Deng Shasha
Source: Xinhua