China's top legislature on Saturday began its first hearing of the draft law on emergency management, aiming to improve the country's ability to handle frequent industrial accidents, natural disasters, health and public security hazards.
The decision to introduce such a law was made in May 2003, during the SARS outbreak, when the government's inexperience in dealing with the emerging crisis led to one of the country's most serious health hazards.
"It was drawn up after we studied emergency management experiences in developed countries, including the United States, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Japan, and conducted studies around China," said Cao Kangtai, director of Legislative Affairs Office under the State Council, or China's cabinet.
Addressing lawmakers on the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress on Saturday, Cao said the bill mainly regulated the government's actions in hazard preparation, emergency detection and declaration, emergency handling, and damage recovery.
He said the emergency management law would effectively prevent common emergencies from turning into public crises, and reduce thedamages.
Four colors of emergency declaration (blue, yellow, orange, andred) would be used to indicate the escalating hazard level, with "red" signaling the most serious (first class) situation.
But the state could declare martial law or a "state of emergency" if the situation ran out of control and articles in thedraft law appeared ineffective, Cao said.
He said martial law had rarely been used in the past, and the emergency management law would mainly deal with less serious cases.
The bill stipulated penalties, including dismissal, for failures of local government officials in handling emergencies, such as failing to take precautionary measures, delaying emergencydeclarations, or trying to cover up.
Cao said it was aimed at restricting administrative power in unusual times, when the government could more easily abuse its power to violate the rights of the public and non-governmental organizations.
"China is frequently hit by natural disasters and industrial accidents, which have caused huge loss of life and property," he said.
Police records show 5.61 million sudden natural and industrial mishaps were reported in 2004, leaving 210,000 people dead and 1.75 million injured. Direct economic losses topped 450 billion yuan (56.3 billion US dollars).
Last year's bird flu outbreak led to tens of millions of fowl being culled and a toxic spill in the northeastern Songhua River in November deprived four million residents in nearby Harbin city of tap water for four days.
Over the past three years, many officials have resigned or beendismissed for their inability to control emergency situations, including former Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, sacked for the SARS cover-up in 2003, and former Environment Minister Xie Zhenhua,who quit in 2005 for the mishandling of the Songhua River pollution.
Under China's legislative system, a bill can be made law after it passes, usually, three rounds of hearings in the national legislature. The Standing Committee of NPC meet every two months.