In Cleanup Effort, Beijing Moved Factories to Clog Air Elsewhere

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 7, 2008

TANGSHAN, China -- Seven years ago, when Beijing won the privilege of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, the Chinese capital promised to fix its environmental problems. Among the toughest measures it took was to eliminate hundreds of highly polluting factories.

But most of these companies didn't shut down. They simply moved.

The village where fisherwoman Zhang Xiuping lives is now surrounded by factories.

As recently as five years ago, this region about 125 miles east of Beijing was a resort, and its sea overflowed with pike, flounder and carp. Now there are few fish, and it's a rare day when Zhang, 53, can see the sun through the smoke. She can tell the direction of the winds from the color of the soot blowing by her home. The gray iron deposits come from the southern steel mills, while the white powder comes from chemical factories, and black dust from coal and coking plants.

The relocation of factories out of Beijing is part of a mass migration of Chinese industry in recent years from wealthier cities, which have become environmentally conscious, to less developed ones. Critics have described the trend as "internal colonization" and questioned whether the country is truly serious about dealing with its pollution or just moving it around and hiding it.

Zhang's home province of Hebei, for decades the poorer, less sophisticated cousin of Beijing, now hosts the bulk of the companies that left the capital.

Her neighbor, factory worker Ren Yuexiang, 53, lives less than a mile from a coking plant that relocated from Beijing. She said the movement of the factories highlights the inequalities in China between the poor in the countryside and the wealthy in the city.

"No one cares about us," Ren said. "We are just farmers. In Beijing they are all high-class royals."

China has taken extreme measures to improve its air quality in time for the Olympic opening ceremony tomorrow. The government has cut the number of cars on the road by half and staggered work hours along with moving and temporarily closing factories.

Beijing's anti-pollution campaign is part of a broader attempt to remake a city that built its early fortunes on heavy industry into a hub for finance and technology. When the city began its cleanup efforts in 2001, it identified hundreds of steel, chemical, automobile, electronics companies and others that were dumping waste into the air and water, and ordered them to leave. More than 200 have stopped operating in Beijing; another 40 will be gone by the end of the year.

The capital's two most notorious polluters -- Shougang Group's Capital Iron and Steel Co., which had been just 10 miles west of Tiananmen Square, and the Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant -- are now in Tangshan.

It was 1959 when the labyrinthine Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant opened its doors in the capital's southeastern corner as part of the country's industrialization push. The factory employed 10,000 workers at its peak and powered most of the city's stoves and residential heating systems. For China's leaders, it was a source of great pride that the smoke emanating from the factory's six chimneys never stopped in its 47-year history.

Liu Yue, 22, said that since the coking factory shut down on July 15, 2006, he has finally been able to hang his clothes outside to dry without fear that they would be coated with black coal dust. Across the street, 56-year-old Li Zunhua, a retired farmer, said the bok choy she plants is growing normally for the first time in the 30 years she has lived here.

"When I was growing up, the sky was never blue. It was yellow. Things are much better now," said Liu, who sells Converse sneakers for a living, while squinting at the clear sky on a recent weekend.

The drive from the factory's old location in Beijing to its new home near Zhang's fishing village in Tangshan in the eastern part of Hebei, not far from where the Great Wall cuts through the province, is striking. The shining skyscrapers of the capital give way to endless factories enveloped in an acrid, fog-like haze.

Once an agricultural backwater, Tangshan has sought to remake itself as a center for heavy industry. By many measures, this plan has been incredibly successful. Tangshan, now the heart of China's steel industry, has exceeded the national average for growth for the past decade. It is now the economic engine of Hebei province and boasts an annual gross domestic product of $50 billion, ranking it 20th in the country.

But there have been costs to this development. Tangshan's deputy mayor, Xin Zhichun, acknowledges that the local government may have gone too far in allowing polluting factories.

Xin said that although the city recently agreed to accept some of the capital's worst polluters, Tangshan imposed strict conditions. He said it demanded that they drastically reduce their pollutants.

As a result, "not a single screw was moved from Beijing to Tangshan," Xin said. "It's a completely new construction. At least a few hundred environmentally friendly, energy-saving and emissions-cutting technologies are being used."

The new home of the Beijing Coking-Chemical Plant is just outside Caozhuang, a tiny village of about 2,000 residents who live in ramshackle huts that look like they are under siege from the mammoth factories that surround it. Zhang and other residents have been fighting the new industrial plants for the past four years, taking to the streets but with little success.

In spring 2007, a tall, muscular man named Jia Jingquan who raises wolves for a living and was then the village's leader, confronted local government officials. He asked them to better compensate residents for the land acquired for industry and provide subsidies to help them move.

He and other opponents were warned to stop their campaign. When they didn't, Jia was arrested on what he and other residents said were trumped up charges of getting into a fistfight with a neighbor. Jia himself was beaten up by authorities, another villager said. More than 100 residents marched to the local court to demand Jia's release. After six months, in September, he was finally allowed to return home but was stripped of his title.

A Tangshan government official said the charges against Jia were legitimate: "There is no such thing as he got jailed because he protested polluting factories."

Reached at his home, Jia, 53, said some "selfish" officials had sent him to jail because they did not want him to complain about the factories but declined to comment further. "I worry they will take me back again," Jia said. "I cannot say anything bad, so I cannot say anything at all."

Staff researchers Wu Meng and Crissie Ding contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company