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China's Own Oil Disaster

BP’s Gulf spill is getting all the press, but China’s pipeline blast in a northern port famous for its beaches is almost as scary. Dan Levin reports on workers cleaning oil with their bare hands, the media clampdown, and more.

07.27.10 10:43 PM ET

An explosion sends crude oil gushing into the sea. Authorities close beaches as frantic cleanup efforts commence, followed by government officials arriving to take stock of the damage and investigate the cause of the spill. Local tourism and fishing industries suffer. Environmentalists cry foul, accusing the government of failing to protect the nation’s natural resources in favor of quick profits. Reports surface that journalists are being kept away from the scene as those in power attempt to limit the political and economic fallout.

“Any criticism launched at the company would be considered an attack on the government, so the media is very quiet.”

If this sounds like the BP oil spill, think again. For the last week, this series of events has taken place here in China after a state-owned pipeline belonging to China National Petroleum Corp., Asia’s largest oil and gas producer by volume, exploded last Friday off the coast of Dalian, a northern port city famous for its beaches. The blasts sent 1,500 tons of crude oil into the Yellow Sea and sparked 100-foot-high flames that burned for 15 hours. While state media has reported that the leak has been stopped and Dalian’s vice mayor said he expects the cleanup effort to take only five days, oil has spread over 165 square miles and other government officials have stated they think the operation could last weeks, with environmental damage possibly continuing for years.

According to Greenpeace China spokesman Wang Xiaojun, the government has failed to warn tourists of the danger washing ashore at the height of beach season. Despite the spill, Greenpeace staff members have seen children playing in the contaminated waters off beaches that have not been closed. “It’s really scary,” said Wang.

Also clueless about protecting their skin from the crude oil are local fishermen, who are doing most of the cleanup using their bare hands, without wearing face masks.

Others tasked with removing the crude are just barely better prepared“We don’t have proper oil cleanup materials, so our workers are wearing rubber gloves and using chopsticks,” a local official told the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper. “This kind of inefficiency means the oil will keep coming to shore.”

Thanks to the inefficiency of BP and American government regulators, China’s cleanup efforts trigger a disturbing sense of déjà vu. More than 1,000 workers, from soldiers to local fishermen, have joined in cleaning up the spill, using oil-eating bacteria, solvents, straw mats, and even buckets, along with 800 fishing boats and 40 ships. One soldier drowned on Tuesday when he was swept away by a wave after he and another soldier jumped into the oil slick to fix an underwater pump.

The Chinese media has hailed him as a martyr and splashed dramatic photos of soldiers rescuing the survivor across official newspapers and websites—until Thursday afternoon, when the stories about the spill sank from the homepages of China’s news websites. The coverage was drowned out by news of major floods elsewhere in the country and ominous headlines about the looming U.S.-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which the Chinese media has been lately flogging as evidence of a Western plot to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty.

While the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and scathing criticism of those responsible for its cleanup have dominated Western headlines and editorials for months, China’s state-media has avoided assigning blame for the spill or criticizing the government’s regulatory shortcomings in risk management and energy policy.

Nobody in China is the least bit surprised by these omissions. Unlike BP, China National Petroleum is a state-owned enterprise with deep connections to the central government. “Any criticism launched at the company would be considered an attack on the government, so the media is very quiet,” said Liu Junning, an expert on political science at the Institute of Chinese Culture in Beijing. “The company’s management team consists of high-ranking officials, which makes it almost impossible to hold them accountable.”

Those with knowledge of the inner machinations of China’s media say that earlier this week, Chinese journalists who had gone to Dalian to report on the spill were ordered to leave the city and stick to a narrative sanctioned by the propaganda department. “All the editors in chief have been told what not to touch,” said one journalist, who asked not to be identified for fear of government reprisals.

The country has a catastrophic track record on emergency management and transparency following disasters caused by man or nature.

In 2005, a state-owned chemical plant in northern China exploded, spilling Benzene into the Songhua River, which supplies the water to the 4 million residents of Harbin. Government officials knew the water was toxic but lied to the public for days about the health threat, denying any problem while attempting to dilute the spill with reservoir water. When that failed, the government shut off the water supply, saying it needed to do maintenance work, despite freezing temperatures. When rumors of an impending earthquake triggered a panic among the public, officials were finally forced to admit the truth.

When an earthquake struck Sichuan province in 2008, killing nearly 70,000 people, many of them students who perished in poorly constructed schools built with the support of corrupt officials, the government quickly censored any mention of corruption in the media and imprisoned grieving parents who called for justice.

“Accidents turn into crises in China because of bad management,” said Richard Suttmeier, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon who has studied China’s disaster relief methods. China has been studying American emergency response plans in an effort to improve its own capabilities, but as the Gulf spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina show, incompetency is rife in the U.S. as well. Still, as China races to industrialize, its government policies will likely exacerbate such problems. “When it comes to energy, China’s pursuit of modernization is going to get more risky,” said Suttmeier.

If anything, BP’s deceptions during the Gulf spill, abetted at times by American government officials and law enforcement, seem to come straight out of the Communist Party’s disaster relief playbook: reporters harassed and blocked from oil-soaked beaches, Photoshopped images of the cleanup efforts, corporate propagandists posing as journalists, officials lying about what they knew and when they knew it. These are marks of a conspiracy that would make Chairman Mao proud.

And if things continue this way, disgraced BP CEO Tony Hayward may just find redemption if he follows in the footsteps of Xie Zhenhua, the former head of China’s state environmental agency who was fired for his role in the Benzene leak cover-up. Keen as the Chinese government is to reward integrity, Xie was soon back at work abroad—as China’s chief negotiator at last year’s U.N. climate-change conference in Copenhagen.

Dan Levin is a Beijing-based journalist who has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, Forbes, the International Herald Tribune, and Monocle, among other publications.