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Pollution a Major Source of Discontent in China


By Luis Ramirez
Voice of America
May 8, 2006


Government Lacks Comprehensive Strategy

China's rapid economic growth has come at the expense of its
environment, with massive chemical spills and other pollution
disasters ruining the land and health of many peasants. In some
cases, severe pollution has prompted violent protests - adding to
the rising unrest the country has experienced over the past few
years. One of the more publicized disasters happened last November,
when explosions at a chemical plant in northeastern China's Jilin
City sent 100 metric tons of benzene and other chemicals into the
Songhua River.

The Jilin Petrochemical Company plant where the November
explosions occurred, seen from across the Songhua River

Water drips from melting icicles off the roof of a hut along the
banks of the Songhua River, signaling the arrival of spring in
northeastern China's Jilin province.

Just a few kilometers upstream, explosions last November ripped
through a petrochemical plant, releasing an 80-kilometer long slick
of benzene and other toxins. The chemicals flowed past this village,
unbeknownst to residents.

One 29-year-old woman says she heard the blast, but was reassured
when state television said all was fine and there was no
contamination in the river.

Days later, after first concealing news of the spill, the government
had to shut off water to Harbin, a city of four million people along
the river. At that point, tests showed benzene levels were 108 times
higher than is considered safe. But villagers along the river
recently said they never received any warnings.

Farmers have continued to use water along Songhua, after
hearing government say spilled chemicals
had been flushed downstream

Many continue to drink water from wells near the river, eat fish
from the river, and use river water for their farm animals and
crops.

This woman pouring water into a trough for her ducks and chickens
says no health workers or government officials have come to offer
assurances or information.

"The water is not affected. The government said it opened a
reservoir to flush out the polluted water, and we cannot see any
pollution. We live on the banks of the river here, and we do not see
anything abnormal," she said.

Only a few villagers say they are worried about the benzene, which
can cause cancer and birth defects.

Government critics say the Songhua incident highlights the inequity
that China's peasants endure. They say authorities are more
concerned with appeasing better-educated urban residents who are
more likely to raise questions than are farmers who are ignorant of
the pollution's dangers. Fear of urban unrest may have been one
reason the authorities acted to protect Harbin.

The spill became an international issue, since the polluted water
flowed into Russia. Political analysts say Moscow's concerns
probably forced the government to publicize the incident and to
remove many officials from their jobs in response.

Wenran Jiang heads the China Institute at Canada's University of
Alberta and analyzed Chinese media reports of the spill. He says
there was a strong effort to publicize the firings and other
government actions.

"Image-building process was probably louder than taking care of the
polluted river," said Wenran Jiang. "But the sad part of this entire
thing is that the city people probably got some of these benefits
and then they believed all this propaganda. But what about the rural
areas?"

Spring thaw of the Songhua River raises new concerns after the
November chemical spill. Villages downstream from the spill
site were never warned of spill's effects

Professor Jiang says that for villagers, the lack of obvious
short-term effects from the spill and ignorance of the
longer-lasting health risks helped stave off public anger.
Keeping a lid on unrest has been tougher elsewhere. A year ago, tens
of thousands of villagers protested in Huaxi village, in central
China's Zhejiang province, after pollution from chemical plants
ruined crops and caused health problems, such as cancer and
stillbirths.

Two witnesses describe how villagers took to the streets.

FIRST MAN: "No one could do anything to stop these people, as this
place is remote - far from government control."

SECOND MAN: "So, the farmers took action. They sat and slept on the
road, preventing trucks carrying materials from entering the plants.
They had no choice."

FIRST MAN: "They live off their land and they could not even grow
vegetables because it was so polluted."

The factories now sit empty, the government shut them down to
appease the villagers. However, authorities also sentenced at least
nine protesters to prison.

The Huaxi riot and similar incidents have helped the government
realize the need for reforms. Elizabeth Economy is the director of
Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York
research group, and has written about pollution and politics in
China.

"There's no doubt that the government is fearful of this social
unrest and that's why they closed the factories and will remove, in
some cases, local officials. They did try to find some local
officials to hold responsible," she said.

One of several factories closed after last year's pollution
riots at Huaxi

The central government has acted to improve the response to
environmental disasters, and to protect peasant land rights.

However, Economy says the new policies have not reached local
officials, and without their support, little will change.

"You are simply not going to be able to pluck out every corrupt
official or every head of a polluting factory who doesn't do the
right thing in China," she continued. "This is an endemic problem.
You need to have a system that makes local officials and business
leaders more accountable. You need greater transparency."

An environmentalist in Beijing who asked not to be named says that
like the ice that has melted along the banks of the Songhua,
eventually there will be political reform in China. But, she says
that for now, the Communist authorities fear that greater openness
will reduce, and eventually end, the party's power.

 

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