Toxic campus scandal tests govt ability to build public trust

By Wang Wenwen Source:Global Times Published: 2016-4-21 0:38:01

The furious Chinese public is calling it yet another public health scandal. Some 500 teenagers at a high school in Changzhou in East China's Jiangsu Province are suffering a range of symptoms, from rashes and bronchitis to cancer, thought to have been caused by exposure to toxic waste from three former chemical plants located close to their new high school campus.

In a nation inured to public health problems, be it the tainted baby formula or the food safety scandals, the latest case is still shocking. With people's outrage mushrooming, it is natural for those affected to blame the local government and try to hold it accountable.

Soon after the toxic case broke out, the Changzhou government issued a statement vowing "zero tolerance" to pollution. However, it failed to assuage the public's doubts over the government's mismanagement of public health affairs. What's worse, the environmental assessment shown by angry parents depicts a far more worrying situation than the government's version.

The scandal has put a serious dent in the credibility of local Chinese governments that had already appeared to be draining away. In the last two to three years, protests across a number of Chinese cities against paraxylene (PX) projects, believed by many to be hazardous, can be attributed to local governments' lack of information transparency. This has in turn tainted their credibility.

Local Chinese governments, out of habitual thinking, would release the good news while covering up the information that they believe will bring detrimental impacts to them. Yet they often face another pernicious crisis when the truth is disclosed. The concealment of information will only lead the governments down an embarrassing path.

The central government should set a performance standard for local levels that will serve as a high incentive for them to reach out to credibility. When a public crisis occurs, the local government should release the truth as soon as possible, no matter how alarming it is.

As admirable as China's economic development over the past few decades is, it has given rise to the reputed China development model, the most distinctive feature of which is the strong executive power of governments. However, if local Chinese governments lack credibility, China may gradually lose this advantage.

The current dilemma for the local governments is that when public opinion and officials stick to their own arguments in a social crisis, the latter always end up losing the trust of the people. The investigations into the Changzhou scandal are still going on, and it remains a test for local governments to close the credibility gap.

Posted in: Observer

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