Officials from the western Chinese city of Lanzhou revealed on Saturday that leaks from a state-run oil company’s pipes were behind a massive carcinogenic contamination that forced the city to shut off its water supply late last week.
But as local officials reassured residents that the water was once again safe to drink, they faced a backlash in print and online over apparent hypocrisy: Just weeks before the current scare, Lanzhou officials had acted swiftly to suppress "rumors" that the city’s drinking water was unsafe.
"Last month everybody in the city thought the water smelled funny. Even my cat wouldn’t drink it, but the government was busy refuting the rumors," wrote one commenter from Lanzhou on China’s Twitter-esque micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo.
Recently-passed laws in China allow the police to take action against micro-bloggers who create or disseminate information deemed to be false, with bloggers eligible for jail time if their message is read 5,000 times or re-tweeted more than 500 times. It remains unclear if early comments over water quality lead to detentions, but Chinese media reports described the rumor-mongers as having been "dealt with."
The government had declared that the suspicious smell was not harmful and used front page headlines in a local newspaper to declare the water safe for drinking. Weeks later, when tests showed shockingly high levels of benzene, a chemical reported to cause cancer, the city took action by shutting off the water supply, though it reportedly only did so 18 hours after the first alarming test results came out. The announcement sparked a panic-buying frenzy as residents rushed out to stock up on bottled water.
The state-run Global Times newspaper published uncharacteristically critical coverage of events in Lanzhou under the headline "From Rumor to Reality in Lanzhou," and comments on the piece took the government to task.
"When the people spread rumors they’re cleaned up, but rumor-mongers in the government might get promoted!" one person wrote in the comments.
China’s new government, headed by President Xi Jinping, has consolidated power over the past year and a half through both sweeping anti-corruption drives and tighter controls over free speech by activists and micro-bloggers. The anti-rumor laws have been employed in several high-profile cases that cast a pall over political debates in Chinese cyberspace.
But liberal uses of anti-rumor laws have brewed a backlash, especially in cases where the "refuted" rumor turned out to be true. In late March, officials in the southern city of Hangzhou vigorously denounced rumors that the city would soon implement limits on issuing license plates -- right before announcing that the city would be doing just that in order to decrease congestion and pollution.
The sudden change of heart appeared designed to avoid a rush on the soon-to-be-precious plates, but it also damaged government credibility and lent credence to a joke circulating online:
"When do you know that something is definitely true? When the government labels it a 'rumor.'"