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Evaluation tells Chinese officials to listen to online opinions and act fast
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Silence is no gold, and prompt response may help head off a crisis, a major Chinese news portal told local officials after evaluating governments' actions when confronted by online outcries after emergencies or troubles hit.

The public opinion monitoring office of people.com.cn, the website of the Communist Party of China's flagship People's Daily newspaper, released a ranking list on Friday marking local governments' responses to online opinions concerning 10 incidents which occurred over the past few months.

Officials in Shishou City, central China's Hubei Province, got a red warning with the lowest score of 2.65 minus for their failure to act instantly when online rumors about the death of a cook spread rampantly in the cyber world in June.

The 24-year-old cook, Tu Yuangao, was found lying dead at the gate of a hotel in Shishou on the evening of June 17. Police found no suspicious injuries and concluded the man had killed himself by falling from a high building. Tu's family and the public, however, were not convinced, and online rumors emerged.

Shishou officials did not act until after about 80 hours of silence, fueling rampant rumors which resulted in an unrest when angry locals obstructed two streets, burnt the hotel and smashed several vehicles.

Experts from the Ministry of Public Security and Tongji Medical Institute carried out an autopsy and X-rays and tested for poisons, showing Tu committed suicide.

The highest score went to officials in Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan Province, where a bus blaze last month killed 28 and injured dozens of others.

Many netizens guessed the cause of the fire after the accident, while some critics said in their online posts the lack of emergency-response equipment on the windtight airconditioned bus was to blame. Some rumors went that the bus was too old and caught fire itself, while there were also complaint which called for the government to care more for people's life and urged bus companies to upgrade bus equipment for security reasons.

The municipal government held five news conferences within three days after the accident, answering netizens' questions in details, and thus avoiding any possible public panic.

Police investigation has found that the fire was deliberately set by a 62-year-old man identified as Zhang Yunliang, who brought with him gasoline on board.

Timeliness and transparency were the two foremost factors when evaluating government actions in the cases, said Zhu Huaxin, head of the public opinion monitoring office.

Zhu said officials must release information as soon as possible after an incident occurs, especially in an era when netizens have become "a big pressure group."

By July, China had 338 million Internet users, or 23.8 percent of the population, overtaking the U.S. as the world's most netizen-populated country, according to the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

Zhu said quick disclosure of facts is of vital importance in establishing government credibility. "A late response or intentional silence will worsen the situation."

Zhu said some local government's public relation and governance capability does not suit the current situation as the Internet has provided a new platform for the public to voice opinions.

"We hope our evaluation could help officials become fully aware of the importance of online opinions," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency July 25, 2009)

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