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."
The party member had no documentation to back up his charge that local officials participated financially in the three factories. But regarding the connection between pollution and cancer, he said, he and several comrades carried out a house-to-house survey of the three neighborhoods closest to the factories and found that Gu's conclusions were accurate.
"That was true, what he said," the party activist said.
He said the survey found that 29 people in the last four years, ranging in age from 30 to 83, have come down with some form of cancer, including one of his relatives. That was in line with Gu's estimate that more than two-thirds of recent deaths in that part of Yangqiao were caused by cancer, three times the national average of a little more than 20 percent.
Zhou said his records show that the village has registered five cancer patients, two of whom have died, since March 2003, when two of the three plants opened.
Whatever the accuracy of the unscientific survey and Gu's article, the county government closed two of Yangqiao's factories after the article attracted national attention. Zhou said the closure was ordered because of panic among the villagers, not scientific proof that the plants were polluting dangerously.
The third plant, the Shuangning Agro-Chemical Co., has continued to operate, employing about 180 people in what its managers portray as pollution-free production of imidacloprid, an agricultural pesticide.
Shuangning was started by the township government about 20 years ago. Since then, 95 percent of its capital has been acquired by private investors, according to Zhang Baoyin, the manager and a major shareholder. The company paid more than $130,000 in taxes last year, making it one of Gu He township's top 15 sources of revenue, he said.
Ma Da, a Shuangning economist, escorted a reporter around the plant's purification basins, where he said wastes are taken out of the water before it is released back into village waterways. Ma and other employees pointed to ducks paddling around a canal near the factory as an indication of how clean the water is.
"Look, a wild one," an employee shouted as a gray duck glided over to the brood of white ducks.
The party veteran and his comrades said the Shuangning plant has been a major source of pollution for years. But Zhang said the sources of Yangqiao's pollution were the two other plants, which sit just down the 50-foot-wide canal.
The larger one was started by two businessmen in cooperation with the township government, Zhang said, but the other's origins were unclear. Both operated with skeleton staffs of mostly migrant workers and without proper permits, refusing to allow anyone local to enter, he said. Nobody here knew for sure what they produced.
The party activist said villagers believed the bigger of the two manufactured sulfuric acid, a powerful oxidizing agent. Zhang said he was told it made ingredients for shampoo. Some villagers told a South China Morning Post reporter they had heard it made plastic and rubber material for manufacturing shoes.
As for the smaller one, villagers told Gu they saw truckloads of something go in but rarely saw anything come out except yellowish waste water. And there were foul odors.
Since the closures earlier this month, that has stopped. The air around Yangqiao has started to smell fresh again and villagers report that the water seems cleaner.
But the uproar continues to hurt farmers, who said people from nearby towns have stopped buying their vegetables. And merchants have stopped coming around to buy dogs for restaurants in Guangzhou, a large city southwest of here that is renowned for its omnivorous appetite.
Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.