China takes disasters off state secrets list

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China said on Monday that it would no longer treat the death toll in natural disasters as a state secret, a step that could lead to greater transparency in a country that has a long history of providing partial or misleading data about diseases, accidents, and state-directed atrocities.

Information about casualties in storms and floods is no longer routinely suppressed in China, as it was before the country opened its doors to the outside world a quarter century ago.

The new rules are unlikely to lead to the release of data that is not currently available in some form. But they may make it more difficult for local officials to cover up accidents on the grounds of protecting state secrets, as they have often done in the past.

As recently as this summer, officials were accused of providing a false death toll for a flash flood that wiped out a school and killed scores of children in the northern province of Heilongjiang.

In a commentary accompanying the announcement, the news agency said that the veil of secrecy hindered the response to disasters.

"To continue to see natural disaster death tolls as state secrets makes it difficult to adapt to practical needs of disaster relief work and is not in accordance with general international practices," the commentary said.

There was no immediate indication as to whether the easing of restrictions on information about natural disasters signals a broader easing of China's draconian rules on other secrets.

The Chinese authorities often cite violations of state secrets, broadly defined as anything that affects the security of the state, to punish journalists, lawyers, doctors, government officials, military personnel, or anyone who challenges the ruling Communist Party.

The secrets agency also did not define what kind of disaster is considered natural as opposed to human. It is unclear, for example, if a flood that followed a dam break or the collapse of a mine would be considered accidents in which the government retains the prerogative to suppress data.

It is also unclear whether the rules will apply retroactively to major disasters in China's past.

The government has never provided a clear accounting of the deaths from the largely policy-driven famine that occurred during the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign, from 1958 to 1960, when Mao Zedong sold the country's scarce grain reserves abroad and forced peasants to produce steel in backyard furnaces.

Although historians say that about 30 million people may have starved to death in what is still referred to as the "three years of natural disaster," the number is a gross estimate and widely disputed.

The official death toll in the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, one of the largest in history, is still recorded as 250,000, but Chinese experts acknowledge that the real toll was three times that amount.

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