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In China, a Green Awakening

A man pushes aside blue-green algae on Tai Lake in eastern China. A thick muck of the algae fed by chemical runoff has developed on the lake.
A man pushes aside blue-green algae on Tai Lake in eastern China. A thick muck of the algae fed by chemical runoff has developed on the lake. (Associated Press)

Ventures that are fully or partly owned by foreigners have also been caught in the inspections. This month, Unilever China, which makes soap, shampoo and other cleaners, was fined and ordered to reduce production because of excessive discharges.

In Wuxi, in the Yangtze River delta about 80 miles from Shanghai, city officials said it was too early to quantify the economic impact of the factory closings. But Li Yuanchao, the governor of Jiangsu province, where Wuxi is, has said, "We are paying back to nature -- even if our GDP decreases by 15 percent."

Liu Yamin, chief of Wuxi's Environmental Protection Bureau, acknowledged that as the city transforms itself from dependence on industry to a focus on high-tech research, there will be growing pains.

"The blue-green algae gave us a warning, a shock, but we Chinese have a saying that a bad thing can be turned into a good thing," Liu said. "So all Wuxi people feel they should turn the bad thing into a good thing and improve environmental protection."

Businesses say that the environmental measures are good in theory but that they worry about unemployment and whether the laws are being applied fairly.

Wuxi Dongtai Fine Chemical Industry was fined $13,000 and ordered to stop making one of its products for failing to meet environmental standards. The city said Dongtai leaked chemicals into a river that flows into Tai Lake.

Feng Jing, Dongtai's office manger, said the incident was minor, caused by small cracks in its piping system, but that the punishment was severe. As a result, the company laid off 50 of its 600 workers. She said worse offenders are still operating.

"As a civilian, I cannot say that current measures taken by the government are wrong . . . but the government really has gone a little too far," Feng said.

Yu Senming, 43, and his wife, Li Yanyu, 45, run a restaurant in Wuxi that depends on business from chemical-factory workers. They say business is down 50 percent since the pollution crackdown.

"Many people -- not just the workers -- depend on those factories for their living," Li said. "If they are all shut down, we will have many social problems."

Wuxi was one of the regions targeted under Deng Xiaoping's "opening up and reform" industrialization push in 1978. The area, once known as the "land of fish and rice," was transformed into the heart of China's chemical industry. Its economy ballooned from 2.5 billion yuan in 1978 to 330 billion yuan (about $44 billion) in 2006 -- bigger than that of Ecuador or Luxembourg.

Now China's sixth-largest industrial city, Wuxi produces chemicals sold to the United States and other countries. It has a downtown of closely packed, dusty high-rises and is surrounded by idyllic countryside dotted with gargantuan factories spewing black smoke. Half the population is employed by the 5,300 factories with annual sales of at least $650,000 each.

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