Chinese Newspapers Put Spotlight on Polluters
Factory Shutdowns Follow Reports
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; Page A10
YANGQIAO, China -- The farmers of this village in the wetlands of southeastern China had long complained about acrid odors from three chemical plants that they said made them feel dizzy. And, they observed, the yellowish waste that flowed in their irrigation canals stunted the corn, killed the fish and made the dogs sick, so sick they could no longer be sold to gourmets in the big city. Worse, they said, a lot of people seemed to be dying of cancer.
Their complaints got little attention, however, until last month. That is when Gu Qiang, a 24-year-old law student-cum-reporter, wrote an article in the Jiangnan Times, a government-controlled newspaper in nearby Yancheng, concluding that pollution from the plants contributed to an abnormally high rate of cancer among Yangqiao's 3,000 residents.
Now the villagers' complaints have received a lot of attention. The Funing County Environmental Protection Department has closed two of Yangqiao's three chemical plants. And the Communist Party officials who control Yangqiao and its region have ordered that nothing more be written in the newspaper or said to inquiring outsiders about the village's problems with pollution.
Yangqiao, a modestly well-off community 200 miles northwest of Shanghai in the lush watershed of several rivers heading for the Yellow Sea, has lived its crisis a long way from the halls of power in Beijing, the capital. But the tempest here has encapsulated some of the Chinese government's main concerns as it struggles to tame this country's headlong rush into economic growth and, as private enterprise spreads, erect a system in which the rules are the same for everyone.
Premier Wen Jiabao has frequently cited the need to reconcile economic progress, represented by the chemical factories at Yangqiao, with the need to protect the Chinese people's health and environment. His government has expressed willingness to have its actions supervised, including by the press. And it has said local officials should be held accountable when policies announced in Beijing are ignored at the village, township and county levels where most of China's 1.3 billion people encounter their rulers -- and where entrepreneurs and officials often are one and the same.
"One of the most important lessons drawn from the experiences of developed countries is that the environment is a frequent victim to economic growth. We should have been aware of its harmful aftermath," said an editorial in the official Legal Daily newspaper in Beijing, commenting on the Yangqiao case. "However, some local officials are still ardent about establishing polluting factories in their effort to pursue instant economic return and beef up their own performance evaluation. Meanwhile, the villages suffering from pollution are irreparably injured by such practices."
That was the kind of notice that officials here felt they did not need. And the Jiangnan Times report, said Zhou Weilong of the Funing County information department, was "far from the facts."
But there was worse to come: "Cancer village in spotlight" was the headline in the government's China Daily. The article reprised Gu's findings and quoted two county officials, who would not give their full names, as saying the possibility of a connection between Yangqiao's cancer rate and its pollution was being looked into.
Zhou said that results of the investigation are not yet in but that previous monitoring showed pollution levels in Yangqiao to be acceptable. "The degree of pollution is not enough to cause cancer," he said in a telephone interview.
That assurance, however, was not good enough for many people here, including Communist Party members. "I am a party member, but I just can't put up with these guys," a 67-year-old party stalwart from the village complained.
Yangqiao's officials have tried to silence the population instead of protecting it, he charged, and calls to the county environmental protection office went unanswered until Gu's article appeared. Even after it came out, he added, local officials were more worried about shutting people up than about stopping the pollution.
"They just tried to intimidate them," he said of local officials who went around warning farmers against any more complaining. "What the government did was just try to protect the factories."
The villager, wearing a traditional blue Mao suit under his rain slicker, was interviewed on condition of anonymity, in a car with curtains drawn shut, because he said he feared retribution. The problem, he said, is that county and township officials have cooperated with the factory owners from the beginning and are now engaged in damage control.
"The first reason is that they are afraid of losing their jobs," he said. "The second reason is that the county, township and village officials all have shares in those factories."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Ma Da, at the Shuangning Agro-Chemical Co., disputes the allegation that the plant endangers farmers in Yangqiao, China. Wastewater is cleaned in basins before it is returned to village waterways, he says.
(Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)