A small explosion in China

Credibility: A lie about deaths of schoolchildren causes government to lose more of its people's trust.

March 20, 2001

WHEN PEOPLE don't believe their government, it is in trouble.

In classic tyrannies, the government monopolizes communication and this is not a problem. People might privately doubt, but lack a basis to contradict.

Now the Communist government of China is failing to cope with changes in the game, even though it made the changes.

On March 6, the village school in Fanglin, Jiangxi Province, blew up, with 42 children dead. Regional newspapers talked to parents, who complained that the school turned the classrooms into dangerous firecracker factories.

Then Premier Zhu Rongji solemnly announced that his government had investigated and learned that this is not true. He said a madman had invaded the school with homemade bombs.

The state-owned national media dutifully reported this. But the state-owned regional media had already reported the parents' tale. It was all over the Internet. In China today, many people have telephones. Word spreads.

Probably few people in China believed Premier Zhu. Will they believe him about anything else? It's a problem of his own making.

He caught on and revised his story a week later to say that children had been made to assemble firecrackers -- but not lately. He also apologized, which was most un-Maoist of him.

How much smarter if Premier Zhu had said from the get-go: Yes, it's a scandal about the firecrackers and the government will not tolerate it.

Instead of telling falsehoods about slave labor firecracker manufacture in the burgeoning free market, Beijing ought to challenge Chinese media to find out the truth.

Then Chinese people would believe more of what they read and hear, even from their leaders.

Also, come July 4, Marylanders ought to think twice about driving to Washington to buy firecrackers and illegally bringing them back to Maryland.

It's not just the danger to their own children, but to those where some are made.

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