18 Mar 2010: Report

As China’s Pollution Toll Grows,
Protesters and Media Push Back

In recent months, protests over the severe illnesses caused by China's heavy industries have resulted in a crackdown on polluters. Leading the charge has been the state-run media, which the central government is now using to gain control over corrupt local authorities and powerful commercial enterprises.

by fred pearce

Last August, residents of Chongqing town in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi surrounded the town’s huge lead works, run by China’s largest lead smelting company. It was a brave act in a totalitarian country. But the people of Chongqing were angry because the town’s doctors had found that of the 731 children they checked, 615 were suffering from lead poisoning caused by pollution from the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Company.

The scandal erupted after a six-year-old girl named Miao Fan complained about a stomach ache. “At first we thought she was trying to avoid school,” said her mother. “We took her to the hospital and found my daughter had got lead poisoning. I never heard of that before, and I suggested my friends nearby have their children checked too.”

In all, 166 of the children were treated in local hospitals. Each had lived near the giant smelter. After the brief protest on Aug. 3, a local newspaper reported the story on an inside page and town authorities issued a bland statement. The plant had emitted 1.11 tons of lead into the air and local watercourses in the previous year, the authorities said, but it had met all national environmental safety standards.

China Protest
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Villagers in Chongqing hold up test results showing excessive levels of lead in the blood of their children.
In the days before online news, that would probably have been the end of the matter. But reporters from the state Xinhua Online news service spotted the local item and a week later they showed up to investigate. Emboldened, the parents resumed their protest. They surrounded the smelter, tore down the wall, ransacked the offices, and destroyed machinery.

Now Xinhua had a story. Its splash on Aug. 18 was accompanied by an editorial that asked: “If pollution standards were met, how is it that people are still poisoned by lead?” Within days, the factory was closed, and the Dongling case had set off a chain reaction across the country, as more and more citizens protested against metal smelters and mines, and Chinese journalists became bolder in reporting the protests.

If this were happening in the West, it would hardly be extraordinary that a major news story had developed out of events such as those in Chongqing. But in China, this was something new, points out Qian Gang, a leading Chinese journalist who studied how the story grew for the China Media Project, a research group at the University of Hong Kong. The major Communist Party news media, such as Xinhua, are starting to report environmental stories, he says. “High-level party media have taken the lead.” Of all the Chinese media, they are proving to be “the fiercest, both in revealing the facts and in offering shrill criticism.”

Why? In the past, the party media had always supported officials and covered up any scandals or misdeeds. If anyone was going to break such a
China has become ground zero for citizen action on new health and environmental issues.
story, it would likely have been the new commercial media. But Qian Gang notes that in China today, the central authorities often use the media as a means of exerting control over wayward local authorities or powerful commercial enterprises. It is also, he says, a means of monitoring popular discontent, known as yulun jiandu, or “supervision by public opinion.”

After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which became a turning point in reporting in China, President Hu Jintao articulated his new press policy, which demanded that party media strengthen what he called “public opinion channeling.” Chinese media are referring to this as “grabbing the microphone” — under this strategy, the authorities control commercial media tightly, while affording privileges to the central party media, including a license to pursue investigations.

Pressure following the Xinhua reports resulted in the Dongling metals plant closing and 11 local public health officials being disciplined. Authorities distributed food that can help remove lead from the body, such as laver, garlic, wulong tea, and seaweed.

As the fastest-growing economy in the world for the past two decades, China is one of the world’s most polluted nations. But it is also becoming ground zero for citizens’ action on the new health and environmental issues created by industrialization. In 2008, there was widespread public anger in China about toxins in food and consumer products. But in recent months, public attention has shifted to environmental pollution near mining and industrial workplaces. And Chinese media, headed by former party propaganda officials, are bringing the scandals to national — and sometimes international — attention.

Many of the concerns resemble those of previous eras in Europe and North America, especially the discovery of outright poisoning from heavy metals like lead, which causes symptoms ranging from abdominal pain and headaches to anemia and impaired neurological development in children. In severe cases, children can lapse into a coma and die.

To date in China, protests and media scrutiny have led to a number of factory closings. But public protests appear ready to continue as government authorities struggle to assess where risks lie and how to combat them.

Days after the Dongling story made headlines, the authorities in Hunan in southern China shut a manganese smelter near Wugang, and detained two executives, after more than 1,000 people protested when 1,300 children fell ill — again from lead poisoning. Some were losing their hair, according to press reports. The plant had been open for only 15 months. Reporters from Xinhua discovered it had been operating without the approval of the local environmental protection bureau.

Then three smelters were shut in Jiyuan city in Henan, the world’s leading center for the manufacture of the metals used in batteries. And in September, villagers blocked a major road in Fujian in eastern China. They were protesting the discovery that 121 children out of 287 tested in three communities were suffering from lead poisoning, apparently a result of pollution from the local battery factory. The factory, which only opened in 2006, suspended production.

In January, another battery factory, at Dafeng City in Jiangsu province, shut after 51 children became ill with lead poisoning. Again the factory had
Metals like lead and cadmium are increasingly recognized as health threats near Chinese mines.
expanded without permission. Lead is not the only metal causing health problems. In another case that came to light in Hunan last fall, doctors diagnosed 509 inhabitants of Liuyang and Zhentou suffering from cadmium poisoning, which causes kidney and liver damage, and even cancer. Two residents had died before it was uncovered. Locals blamed the Changsha Xianghe plant, which opened in 2003 to manufacture zinc sulphate, an additive in animal feed.

The risks in Changsha were hardly unknown. In 2000, U.S. authorities had banned zinc-based fertilizer imports from China after discovering they were contaminated with cadmium. But Xinhua reported that the Changsha factory had been heedlessly discharging industrial waste containing cadmium into watercourses that villagers used to irrigate their crops.

Metals like lead, cadmium, and zinc are also increasingly recognized as environmental and health threats in Chinese mining areas. In southern Guangdong, where rivers run orange and white with contamination, Chinese journalists have dubbed some communities “cancer villages.”

One facility under attack in 2009 was the state-owned Dabaoshan mine, which discharges acidic water laced with metals such as cadmium, killing most life in the Hengshi River, a major waterway in the area. Villagers near the mine drink and irrigate their rice crops with well water contaminated with cadmium and zinc. A 2009 study by Ping Zhuang, of the South China Botanical Garden at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Guangzhou, confirmed dangerous levels of the metals in paddy soils and local food.

Adults suffer high rates of colon cancer. And Qing-Song Bao of the Department of Food Safe Supervision in Yixing reported that children downstream of the mine had high levels of lead, cadmium, and zinc in their bodies. He linked this to high rates of anxiety, depression, social problems, somatic complaints, difficulty concentrating, and delinquent and aggressive behaviour.

Faced with a crescendo of public concern, the central authorities in China two years ago launched a Pollution Source Census, demanding that the
One scientist said pollution was responsible for a tenth of all birth defects in China.
estimated 15,000 polluting factories, as well as mines and farms, come clean about their emissions, which often exceed formal license limits. The government insisted the aim was to evaluate rather than prosecute, and that legal action would only follow if companies continued the cover-up. The census results were published in February, revealing twice as much water pollution as previously recognized.

The pollution census may be lifting the lid on a story bigger than anyone has yet guessed. Last year a genetics professor at Nanjing University, Hu Yali, told journalists he believed environmental pollution was responsible for a tenth of all physical defects in Chinese infants. That was especially alarming since the vice-minister in charge of China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, Jiang Fan, had warned that birth defects had risen by 40 percent in China since 2001. She blamed emissions from mining and chemical industries and announced a new screening program for women contemplating pregnancy who lived in the eight provinces with the worst problems.

But while national authorities and media may push for reform and openness, local officials often quash protests and cover up even the worst pollution. Last summer, Chinese civil rights activists reported that Sun Xiaodi, an environmentalist in Gansu province, had been arrested along with his daughter and sent for “re-education” after exposing pollution problems at a uranium mine. Chinese law, at least in theory, protects whistleblowers who report environmental pollution. But the pair was charged instead with “providing state secrets overseas.”

MORE FROM YALE e360

America’s Unfounded Fears of
A Green-Tech Race with China

Green China
There has been growing talk about a clean-tech race between China and the U.S., often cast in ominous tones. But the quest to develop and implement renewable energy can be one where both nations win.
READ MORE
And even in Chongqing, the local cliques appear to be back in charge. Local police have warned residents that there will be repercussions if they speak to the media. Some protesters have been accused of being members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Officials are even reported to have tried to discourage doctors from conducting tests for lead poisoning on new babies.

Late last month, the Dongling smelter announced that it will shortly reopen. One of the original protesters, Yang Tagu from the poisoned village of Sunjianantou, told reporters, “They want us to remain silent when the factory resumes production.” That may be so. But given the new-found activism of citizens and journalists, silence is in increasingly short supply in China today.

POSTED ON 18 Mar 2010 IN Climate Policy & Politics 

COMMENTS


It is true that China is meeting a lot of problems around, but I believe China will get better and better. At least the central government is trying to change its attitudes to face challenges.

Posted by better future on 20 Mar 2010


Comments have been closed on this feature.
fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360 Pearce has written about the mishandling of the “Climategate” controversy and green innovation in China.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


With Trump, China Emerges
As Global Leader on Climate

With Donald Trump threatening to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, China is ready to assume leadership of the world’s climate efforts. For China, it is a matter of self-interest – reducing the choking pollution in its cities and seizing the economic opportunities of a low-carbon future.
READ MORE

In New Ozone Alert, A Warning
Of Harm to Plants and to People

Scientists are still trying to unravel the damaging effects of ground-level ozone on life on earth. But as the world warms, their concerns about the impact of this highly toxic, pollution-caused gas are growing.
READ MORE

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.
READ MORE

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.
READ MORE

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


How Tracking Product Sources
May Help Save World’s Forests

by fred pearce
Global businesses are increasingly pledging to obtain key commodities only from sources that do not contribute to deforestation. Now, nonprofit groups are deploying data tools that help hold these companies to their promises by tracing the origins of everything from soy to timber to beef.
READ MORE

How Warming Threatens the Genetic
Diversity of Species, and Why It Matters

by jim robbins
Research on stoneflies in Glacier National Park indicates that global warming is reducing the genetic diversity of some species, compromising their ability to evolve as conditions change. These findings have major implications for how biodiversity will be affected by climate change.
READ MORE

Full Speed Ahead: Shipping
Plans Grow as Arctic Ice Fades

by ed struzik
Russia, China, and other nations are stepping up preparations for the day when large numbers of cargo ships will be traversing a once-icebound Arctic Ocean. But with vessels already plying these waters, experts say the time is now to prepare for the inevitable environmental fallout.
READ MORE

How Forensics Are Boosting
Battle Against Wildlife Trade

by heather millar
From rapid genetic analysis to spectrography, high-tech tools are being used to track down and prosecute perpetrators of the illegal wildlife trade. The new advances in forensics offer promise in stopping the trafficking in endangered species.
READ MORE

African Wetlands Project: A Win
For the Climate and the People?

by winifred bird
In Senegal and other developing countries, multinational companies are investing in programs to restore mangrove forests and other wetlands that sequester carbon. But critics say these initiatives should not focus on global climate goals at the expense of the local people’s livelihoods.
READ MORE

Ghost Forests: How Rising Seas
Are Killing Southern Woodlands

by roger real drouin
A steady increase in sea levels is pushing saltwater into U.S. wetlands, killing trees from Florida as far north as New Jersey. But with sea level projected to rise by as much as six feet this century, the destruction of coastal forests is expected to become a worsening problem worldwide.
READ MORE

On College Campuses, Signs of
Progress on Renewable Energy

by ben goldfarb
U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly deploying solar arrays and other forms of renewable energy. Yet most institutions have a long way to go if they are to meet their goal of being carbon neutral in the coming decades.
READ MORE

For European Wind Industry,
Offshore Projects Are Booming

by christian schwägerl
As Europe’s wind energy production rises dramatically, offshore turbines are proliferating from the Irish Sea to the Baltic Sea. It’s all part of the European Union’s strong push away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.
READ MORE

In New Ozone Alert, A Warning
Of Harm to Plants and to People

by jim robbins
Scientists are still trying to unravel the damaging effects of ground-level ozone on life on earth. But as the world warms, their concerns about the impact of this highly toxic, pollution-caused gas are growing.
READ MORE

The Rising Environmental Toll
Of China’s Offshore Island Grab

by mike ives
To stake its claim in the strategic South China Sea, China is building airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs. Scientists say the activities are destroying key coral reef ecosystems and will heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
A look at how acidifying oceans could threaten the Dungeness crab, one of the most valuable fisheries on the U.S. West Coast.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Ashaninka
An indigenous tribe’s deadly fight to save its ancestral land in the Amazon rainforest from logging.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Choco rainforest Cacao
Residents of the Chocó Rainforest in Ecuador are choosing to plant cacao over logging in an effort to slow deforestation.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

OF INTEREST



Yale