The irony was inescapable. On the same day that China's space agency announced that it hoped to put a man on the moon and build a space station within 15 years, other Chinese officials were dealing with the nation's second major environmental, as well as public relations, disaster in a week.
Last week, it was an industrial accident that sent an estimated 100 tons of benzene into the Songhua River, forcing the downriver city of Harbin – a metropolis of 4 million people – to shut off its public water supply.
On Sunday, an explosion killed at least 134 miners in a coal mine in the city of Qitaihe, about 250 miles from Harbin.
All those recent news stories about change in China, the modern host of the 2008 Olympics, a more open China, a more democratic China? It's all public relations.
This is the same regressive China, the China where life is cheap, where there is little freedom, where labor unions are banned, where dissent is outlawed, where the press is shackled, where the all-powerful government needn't answer for industrial accidents or a horrific string of coal mine disasters. (At least 4,153 people died in Chinese mining accidents in the first nine months this year, according to the BBC; that's about 13 percent fewer than during the same period last year).
The Chinese government has been through this exercise before. There has been at least one major coal mine disaster in China every year since 2000, with official death tolls of 162 or 81 or 166 or 214. Government officers show up at the scene, express condolences, announce initiatives to increase the number of inspectors and inspections, to impose stricter standards and to shorten working hours. But before long, there will be another coal mine catastrophe. Bribery and the nation's insatiable appetite for coal to feed its booming economy ensures that once-shuttered mines are reopened or that illegal mines operate freely.
In the aftermath of last week's benzene spill there was speculation that the timid Chinese press, which is, after all, controlled by the Chinese government, might suddenly become a force for change. In reporting the catastrophe, one newspaper called for a "transparent public information system" and another suggested that "(t)hose who have lied irresponsibly will certainly be punished severely."
But again, the Chinese government has been known to briefly let its journalists off the leash, only to yank it swiftly and firmly. The Christian Science Monitor notes that in recent years the press has been allowed to criticize the government over the SARS outbreak and a police brutality scandal. Some China-watchers suggested it was a "spring time" for journalists.
Not so, the Monitor noted, a few months later the editors of the newspapers that ran the stories were either in jail or without jobs. Watch for a similar outcome in the aftermath of the coverage of the coal mine and industrial spill stories.