A toxic spill into a river in northeast China that left four million people without water, a public without accurate information and Russia without a clear idea of the ecological disaster that was headed its way has raised questions about the authorities' stance on environmental safety and transparency.
It all started on November 13, when a series of explosions at a PetroChina chemical plant near the city of Jilin led to the spillage of 100 tonnes of benzene into the Songhua River. The toxins formed a giant 80-km slick which began winding its way downstream toward several cities that rely on the river as a principal water source, notably the nine million-strong city of Harbin.
Ten days later, when the Harbin city government decided to turn off the taps for fear of an environmental catastrophe, residents were told that the water system was being closed for "maintenance." The truth emerged a few hours later, prompting a rush for the airport and the train station as thousands tried to flee the city.
News of shipments of bottled water, stockpiled medicines and special filters in the water system failed to thaw the climate of mistrust that had sprung up between people and government. It remained even once water was restored five days later to the four million who had been without.
Newspapers in China's major cities were scathing of the local authorities' handling of the situation and Beijing responded with sackings. The director of the State Environmental Protection Administration was the first head to roll and the purge of those involved in the coverup was set to continue at local level.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing formally apologized to Moscow and met with his Russian counterpart to give assurances of support in dealing with the contamination. Temporary dams were built to stem the flow as it approached Khabarovsk, a city of 580,000, and Beijing sent the city 150 tons of activated carbon for use in water filtration.
Ultimately, the biggest casualty of this safety and PR disaster will be the environment. Scientists warned that chemicals absorbed into the river bed would take years to decompose, while toxins could well enter the food chain.
Bird flu keeps spreading
China confirmed its fifth human case of bird flu on December 9 as the World Health Organization refuted claims by a respected Hong Kong scientist that the Chinese authorities were involved in a mass cover-up of the virus. The victim was a 31-year-old farmer from Liaoning province who recovered from her fever and pneumonia-like symptoms only for subsequent tests to show that the H5N1 virus had been present. So far, two of the five reported human cases of bird flu have been fatal. Guan Yi of the University of Hong Kong, one of the world's leading experts on bird flu, told the Toronto Globe and Mail he could show evidence of the virus in provinces that have yet to announce outbreaks despite government attempts to block his research. The WHO said it had seen nothing to suggest China was hiding cases of bird flu. There have been reports of more than 30 outbreaks of the virus among poultry, with thousands of chickens and ducks being culled and poultry markets closed to prevent it spreading.
Sino-Japanese ties still tense
China ruled out a three-way meeting with Japan and South Korea because of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, which honors 14 Class-A war criminals alongside millions of war dead. It is the first time in six years that the trilateral meeting, which was due to take place on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, hasn't been held. "The current difficulties between China and Japan are the sole responsibility of a key Japanese leader and his own wrongdoings," said Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. There is also Chinese discomfort over Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party adopting a draft constitution that would recognize the nation's right to maintain a military.
Bush, Hu in Beijing talks
During his weekend state visit to China, US President George W Bush urged China to expand religious, political and social freedoms, while Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to further open China's markets to US farmers and businesses, though no specific plans were discussed. While no breakthrough resulted from Bush's demand for greater currency reform, Hu promised Bush that China would "unswervingly" move in that direction and take steps to reduce the US-China trade imbalance. On the sensitive topic of Taiwan, Hu told the US leader that his nation is committed to reunification with the island and would "by no means tolerate so-called Taiwan independence." Bush said Sino-US relations were important and invited Hu to the US this year, an invitation Hu accepted.
Airbus seals China deal
China placed a US$9.6 billion order for 150 Airbus A320 planes during Premier Wen Jiabao's trip to France last month in a deal sweetened by the possibility that China could become the company's Asian production hub. The two parties signed an agreement to look into the possibility of setting up an assembly line in China that could see Airbus jets being built outside Europe for the first time. The order placed with the Europe-based manufacturer dwarfed the US$4 billion, 70-plane deal its US rival Boeing secured when US President George W. Bush visited Beijing at the end of November.
Earthquake hits Jiangxi
Fourteen people died and nearly 400 were injured when an earthquake measuring 5.7 on the Richter scale struck Ruichang county in east China's Jiangxi province on November 26. It was reported that 8,500 homes were destroyed and a further 130,000 homes damaged as 420,000 people were moved to safer areas.
Torture is widespread: UN
The use of torture in China is widespread, and frequently carried out by police who exercise "wide discretion" within the country's underdeveloped legal system, said the United Nations special envoy on torture. Manfred Nowak made the comments following an unprecedented two-week mission to China during which he visited detention centers in Beijing, Tibet and Xinjiang. He said techniques such as beating and sleep deprivation were used by police and other security authorities and urged Beijing to bring criminal law and procedures in line with international standards. The government dismissed Nowak's claims on the grounds that he didn't spend enough time in China to draw accurate conclusions.
OECD calls for rural reforms
China should close the income gap between rural and urban populations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said in its first review of China's agriculture policies. The review blamed restrictions on labor and land markets for the imbalance and called on Beijing to remove barriers to rural-urban migration, permanent residence rights and tenure security. The OECD also recommended improvements to healthcare and education in rural areas as well as the introduction of an agricultural price information network and large autonomous organizations run by farmers to market produce.
G7 pressure over yuan
Finance ministers and central bank governors from the Group of Seven nations resumed their pressure on China to adopt a more flexible exchange rate at a meeting in London. "We expect that further flexible implementation of China's currency system would improve the functioning and stability of the global economy and the international monetary system," the G7 said. The US Treasury had earlier resisted calls from domestic lawmakers and manufacturers to accuse China of manipulating its currency to gain economic advantages. The Treasury report stated China's small revaluation of the yuan in July was a factor in its decision not to name the country a currency manipulator.
Police kill protestors
At least three villagers were killed after police fired on protesters in Dongzhou, Guangdong province, during a confrontation over compensation demands for land lost to make way for the construction of a power plant. A state media report said 170 villagers armed with "knives, steel spears, sticks, dynamite powder, bottles filled with petroleum and fishing detonators" launched an attack on a wind power station. It claimed the police only opened fire when the protestors began to throw explosives at them. Villagers claim as many as 20 people were killed and investigators detained the police commander in charge at the scene.
Public to hear appeals
Local courts are to start holding public hearings for all death penalty appeals starting over the course of the year as part of a broader attempt to make capital punishment procedures more open. The Supreme People's Court announced that open hearings would be held for highly controversial death sentence court appeals from January 1, and for all death sentence appeals from the second half of the year. Rights groups and legal scholars claim that the number of people executed in China is excessive and convictions at times lack solid evidence.
Political outcast honored
China marked the 90th birthday of Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang behind closed doors, ending almost two decades of silence on the reformist leader whose death sparked the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests. The event was scaled down to 350 people from 2,000 and brought forward by two days to avoid social unrest, sources told Reuters. Hu resigned as party chief in 1987 after coming under fire from hardliners who accused him of allowing western values to spread unchecked after a wave of student unrest in 1986.
HIV cases up more than 50%
China's top AIDS official said the country's confirmed number of HIV cases rose by more than 50% in the past year, but the magnitude of the epidemic remains unclear due to the government's poor monitoring. By the end of September, the number of reported HIV cases was 135,630, compared with 89,067 over the same period last year, according to Wang Longde, director of the State Council AIDS Prevention and Treatment Work Committee. Health experts say China's vast size and poor healthcare infrastructure mean that only about 15% of HIV-positive people are officially diagnosed with the virus, and even fewer AIDS patients receive medical attention.
China by numbers
China's industrial output increased 16.3% in the first 10 months of 2005, slightly lower than 2004's 16.9% growth over the same period. Factory production increased to US$704 billion year-on-year.
Between 2001 and 2004, private companies in China increased in number by nearly 50%. SOEs declined 47.9% and collectively owned companies fell by 47.1%
In a Pew Research Center survey, 76% of Chinese said they were optimistic about improving their quality of life within five years, ranking them at the top of 17 countries surveyed.
20.2% of seats in China's legislature are held by women, compared with 9.3% in Japan. The ratio of estimated female to male earned income is 66% in China and 46% in Japan.
China's textile exports to the European Union rose by 40% in the first eight months of 2005, while EU imports from Hong Kong and Macau fell 54% and 53% respectively.
Total film box office revenue in China reached US$250 million in 2005, growing by 30% from 2004.