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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 November 2005, 16:04 GMT
Harbin: Truth emerges after secrecy
By Jill McGivering
BBC News

Dead fish float on the Songhua River
Local media showed pictures of dead fish in the Songhua River
The water crisis in Harbin involves a cluster of difficult issues for China - poor governance, industrial accidents and, perhaps most crucially, official determination to control information.

On Monday, the Harbin government simply announced that water was being cut off so they could check the city's supply system.

They denied local reports that the cause was industrial poisoning, saying that was "just a rumour".

The following day, they were forced to change their story and admit fear of contamination from the Jilin plant was the real reason.

Struggle for information

Some of the pressure for that reversal came from a cluster of angry criticisms posted on Chinese internet sites - an expression of frustration by local people who wanted more answers or simply did not believe the official line.

Capital of Heilongjiang province
Strong Russian influence
Hosts annual ice festival

To some, the Harbin crisis is a classic example of a struggle for information across China, especially on environmental issues.

The environment is one of the few areas where non-government groups have been allowed to emerge.

But they are restricted, forced to register with government agencies and not allowed to grow beyond a local or, at best, provincial level.

International criticism about the government's secrecy after outbreaks of Sars and the bird flu did hit home.

Unanswered questions

Some point to greater government awareness about the need to communicate more openly, especially on public health.

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Used as a cleaning agent, solvent, in dyes and paints
Lethal to humans exposed to it in high levels
Chronic exposure leads to progressive degeneration of bone marrow and leukaemia

But critics say there is still an unhealthy preoccupation about controlling information, rooted in the underlying belief that tight control of information is essential for social stability and the preservation of the current one-party system.

Meanwhile, the people of Harbin still have a lot of unanswered questions.

The extent of the contamination is uncertain. It is unclear when the water will be switched back on.

And there is also concern about the health of communities living between Harbin and Jilin where the explosion happened who are also dependent on the same river.

See the panic-buying of water in Harbin

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