BEIJING, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Local Chinese officials must get news of unrest and other "emergencies" straight into the hands of central leaders to comply with new national emergency response measures, issued at the weekend.
The plan divides natural disasters, public health and environmental crises and threats to social stability into four colour-coded categories and sets different broad reponses from local and central authorities to each.
Local authorities must inform the State Council, China's cabinet, of "important social security incidents" within four hours, state the rules posted on the central government's Web site, www.gov.cn.
"The guidelines come at a time when a string of serious cases, including contamination of drinking water, bird flu outbreaks and mine accidents, have stricken China over the past few months," the China Daily said on Monday.
But Beijing is also grappling with an acknowledged rise in rural unrest.
In August, police minister Zhou Yongkang said 74,000 public protests had been staged across China in 2004, and senior police officials and Chinese rights activists have predicted more "mass incidents" around the nation in 2006.
Much of China's unrest involves farmers angry about official corruption and land grabs without proper compensation.
The guidelines call for local authorities to inform the public of emergencies and "social safety incidents" as soon as possible and repeat general warnings that officials who delay, cover up or falsify reports will be punished.
Though more and more natural and man-made disasters are making the Chinese news, domestic media are required to stay tight-lipped about public demonstrations.
National and local officials have been silent about a bloody December crackdown on protests over a government land grab in southern Guangdong province in which armed police opened fired on demonstrators, killing at least three.
Xinhua news agency issued a report a week after the crackdown in Guangdong, blaming "criminals" among the demonstrators for sparking the violence.
The new emergency rules should help central leaders ensure word of crises is not held up by regional or even national authorities.
Local officials in northeast Jilin province failed in November to report a toxic spill in the Songhua River, which forced Harbin, a city of 9 million in Heilongjiang province, to scramble and shut off public water supplies for five days.
The chief of the State Environmental Protection Administration resigned after the crisis.
China was widely criticised in 2003 for its initial cover-up of the SARS virus, contributing to its eventual spread to 8,000 people around the world.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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