Global Policy Forum

Rivers Run Black and Chinese Die of Cancer


Jim Yardley

New York Times
September 12, 2004

Wang Lincheng began his accounting at the brick hut of a farmer. Dead of cancer, he said flatly, his dress shoes sinking in the mud. Dead of cancer, he repeated, glancing at another vacant house. Mr. Wang, head of the Communist Party in this village, ignored a June rain and trudged past mud-brick houses, ticking off other deaths, other empty homes. He did not seem to notice a small cornfield where someone had dug a burial mound of fresh red dirt.

Finally, he stopped at the door of a sickened young mother. Her home was beside a stream turned greenish-black from dumping by nearby factories - polluted water that had contaminated drinking wells. Cancer had been rare when the stream was clear, but last year cancer accounted for 13 of the 17 deaths in the village. "All the water we drink around here is polluted," Mr. Wang said. "You can taste it. It's acrid and bitter. Now the victims are starting to come out, people dying of cancer and tumors and unusual causes."

The stream in Huangmengying is one tiny canal in the Huai River basin, a vast system that has become a grossly polluted waste outlet for thousands of factories in central China. There are 150 million people in the Huai basin, many of them poor farmers now threatened by water too toxic to touch, much less drink. Pollution is pervasive in China, as anyone who has visited the smog-choked cities can attest. On the World Bank's list of 20 cities with the worst air, 16 are Chinese. But leaders are now starting to clean up major cities, partly because urbanites with rising incomes are demanding better air and water. In Beijing and Shanghai, officials are forcing out the dirtiest polluters to prepare for the 2008 Olympics.

By contrast, the countryside, home to two-thirds of China's population, is increasingly becoming a dumping ground. Local officials, desperate to generate jobs and tax revenues, protect factories that have polluted for years. Refineries and smelters forced out of cities have moved to rural areas. So have some foreign companies, to escape regulation at home. The losers are hundreds of millions of peasants already at the bottom of a society now sharply divided between rich and poor. They are farmers and fishermen who depend on land and water for their basic existence.

In July and August, officials measured an 82-mile band of polluted water moving through the Huai basin. China rates its waterways on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being too toxic even to touch. This water was rated 5. For fishermen, it may as well have been poison. "If I had wanted to, I could have gone on the river and filled a boat with dead fish," said Song Dexi, 64, a fisherman in Yumin. "It was smelly, like toilet water. All our fish and shrimp died. We don't have anything to live on now."

The Huai was supposed to be a Communist Party success story. Ten years ago, the central government vowed to clean up the basin after a pollution tide killed fish and sickened thousands of people. Three years ago, a top Chinese official called the cleanup a success. But the Huai is now a symbol of the failure of environmental regulation in China. The central government promotes big solutions but gives regulators little power to enforce them. Local officials have few incentives to crack down on polluters because their promotion system is based primarily on economic growth, not public health. It is a game that leaves poorer, rural regions clinging to the worst polluters.

"No doubt there is an economic food chain, and the lower you are, the worse off your environmental problems are likely to be," said Elizabeth C. Economy, author of "The River Runs Black" (Cornell University Press, 2004), a study of China's environment. "One city after the next is offloading its polluting industries outside its city limits, and polluting industries themselves are seeking poorer areas."

China is facing an ecological and health crisis. Heavy air pollution contributes to respiratory illnesses that kill up to 300,000 people a year, many in cities but also in rural areas, the World Bank estimates. Liver and stomach cancer, linked in some studies to water pollution, are among the leading causes of death in the countryside. "Over the past 20 years in China, there has been a single-minded focus on economic growth with the belief that economic growth can solve all problems," said Pan Yue, the outspoken deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration. "But this has left environmental protection badly behind."

Too Poor to Flee, or to Get Well

Few places bear that out more than eastern Henan Province, which includes Huangmengying. The isolated region has tanneries, paper mills and other high-polluting industries dumping directly into the rivers. One of the biggest polluters is the Lianhua Gourmet Powder Company, China's largest producer of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, the flavor enhancer. But the company's political influence is so vast that environmental regulators who have tried to challenge the company have done so in vain.

The Huai River basin has neither the history of the Yellow River nor the mystique of the Yangtze. Yet the Huai, with its spider's web of canals and broad tributaries, irrigates a huge swath of China's agricultural heartland. Farmers once spent lifetimes tilling the same plot of corn or wheat. But in the past decade, millions of farmers, unable to earn a living from the land, have left Henan for migrant work in cities, leaving behind villages of old people and young mothers.

One of those mothers is Kong Heqin, 30, who was the last stop on Mr. Wang's cancer tour in June. She stumbled into her dirt courtyard, disheveled and groggy from an afternoon nap. Her face was bloated and her legs were swollen. She had already had three operations for cancer, and new tumors were growing in her large intestine. Earlier in the year, doctors had prescribed chemotherapy. But treatments cost $500 a series, nearly a year's income. She had borrowed $250 to pay spring school fees for her two sons, and she worried that chemotherapy would drain the family's meager resources away from her children. So she stopped chemotherapy. "We've wasted so much money on medical treatment," she said. "I think the best thing would be to give up on it."

Her rising medical bills were one reason her husband left a few years ago for construction work in a northern metropolis, Tianjin. He returns twice a year to plant or harvest crops. On good months, he sends home $60, but Ms. Kong says months go by with nothing in the mail. Her illness shapes family life. Her elderly mother tends her husband's fields because she is too weak. Her sons wash the clothes. She grows a ragged garden in her courtyard because the pesticides coating vegetables at local markets make her sick. The plate of boiled eggs on her dresser was a gift from sympathetic relatives. Asked about pollution, she seemed confused, as if unaware of the concept. But she has noticed that her well water smells bad and has changed in taste. She knows that others are sick, too. "There's a family next door with a case of cancer," she said. "But they don't like to talk about it. People here are scared to talk about these things."

Epidemiological research for cancer in the Huai basin is scant. None has been done in Huangmengying. Nor does any scientific evidence prove that pollution is causing the rising cancer rate. What is clear is the wide range of pollutants, from fertilizer runoff to the dumping of factory wastes. But Dr. Zhao Meiqin, chief of radiology at the county hospital, said cancer cases in the area rose sharply after heavy industry arrived in the 1980's and 90's. Before, the area had about 10 cases a year. "Now, in a year, there are hundreds of cases," she said, putting the number as high as 400, mostly stomach and intestinal tumors. "Originally, most of the patients were in their 50's and 60's. But now it tends to strike earlier. I've even treated one patient who is only 7." Dr. Zhao said most cancer patients came from villages close to the factories along the Shaying River, a major tributary in the Huai basin. Mr. Wang, the village party chief, also said the highest concentrations of cancer were found in the homes closest to the village stream, which draws its water directly from the Shaying.

Health problems began appearing slowly in the early 1990's. Mr. Wang said he learned that the water was severely polluted after an environmental official came on a personal visit. Farmers also began complaining that their fields were producing less grain because of polluted irrigation water. Today, pollution corrodes daily life here. Farmers too poor to buy bottled water instead drink well water that curdles with scum when it is boiled.

Xiao Junhai is 57 but looks two decades older. In June, he shivered under a quilt in a dark room, summer flies flitting at his head, cancer knotting his stomach. He could not lift himself from his crude bed. "I grew up drinking the water here, and I still drink it," he said. "I don't know what pollution is, but I do know it means the water is bad." His daughter, Xiao Li, 24, anguished over the dilemma that her father's illness had thrust upon her. She says her father takes traditional Chinese remedies and eats rice porridge because the family cannot afford treatment. If she returned to her migrant job on the coast, in Hangzhou, she might earn enough money to pay for it. But no one else can care for him. So she has stayed. "The water in the river used to be clean, but now it's black and changing colors all the time," she said. "The water is being destroyed."

The Lianhua Gourmet Powder Company is based in Xiangcheng, upstream from Huangmengying. It is the area's largest employer, with more than 8,000 workers, and the largest taxpayer in Xiangcheng. For Henan Province, Lianhua Gourmet is a signature company, the biggest producer of MSG in China. An analysis by a Chinese credit rating service, Xinhua Far East, found that in 2001 the factory produced more than 133,000 tons of MSG and has plans to raise production to 200,000 tons. Under any circumstances, the company's sheer size would translate into significant political clout. But Lianhua, basically, is the government. Lianhua is traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, but according to the credit analysis, its majority stockholder is a holding company owned by the Xiangcheng city government.

This type of government-controlled enterprise is not unusual in China, but the potential for a conflict of interest is glaring. The production of MSG leaves potentially harmful byproducts, including ammonia nitrate and other pollutants that are supposed to be treated to meet environmental standards. A damning report last year by the State Environmental Protection Administration blamed local officials for lax enforcement. The report said Lianhua had dumped 124,000 tons of untreated water every day through secret channels connected to the Xiangcheng city sewage system. The water eventually flowed into the Shaying River, almost quadrupling pollution levels. "This constitutes a grave threat to the lives and livelihoods of people downstream," the report stated. Officials at Lianhua did not respond to repeated written and telephone requests for interviews. Neither did officials in Xiangcheng nor with Henan Province. But one retired local Communist Party official said party cadres had always protected Lianhua. He said a son-in-law of a Lianhua chief executive once even headed the city's environmental protection bureau. "There are a lot of officials who don't care about pollution," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "Some leaders are just interested in making money." He said the company often broke promises about cleaning up. "What they said and what they did were different things," he said. "They even said they would stop production if they weren't able to meet pollution standards. But they never did that."

A Stream of Black Water

This June, a reporter saw a noxious liquid flowing from a waste outlet into a stream near a Lianhua factory on the outskirts of Xiangcheng. A sign above the outlet said, "Lianhua Company, No. 3 Waste Outlet.'' Another sign said the outlet was under the oversight of the city environmental bureau. The acrid smell was so strong that it was difficult to stand nearby. Less than a mile downstream from the waste outlet, Wang Haiqing watched his seven goats chew on weeds. Mr. Wang lived on the other side of the stream, in Wangguo, and said several neighbors had contracted cancer or other intestinal ailments. He said his goats vomited if they drank from the blackened water. To reach clean drinking water, he said villagers must dig wells 130 feet deep. Most cannot afford to do so. "It's been so polluted by the MSG factory," said Mr. Wang, 60. "It tastes metallic even after you boil it and skim the stuff off it. But it's the only water we have to drink and to use for cooking."

The rains of June in Huangmengying had given way to boiling humidity by the middle of August. Mr. Wang, the village chief, wore shorts and sandals as he again walked beside the village stream. He said four more people had died since June, two of cancer. But much had also changed in the two months.

The 10th anniversary of the government's promise to clean up the Huai had become a major embarrassment for the Communist Party. Roughly $8 billion had been spent to improve the basin, but the State Environmental Protection Administration concluded this year that some areas were more polluted than before. China's press, often given freer rein on environmental issues, published critical articles over the summer. The newspaper operated by the State Environmental Protection Administration blamed local officials for allowing powerful companies, including Lianhua, to continue polluting. Even tiny Huangmengying got attention: a crew from state television visited in July. Officials, fearing a humiliating exposé, hurriedly started digging a deeper well for the village. But the gesture was dwarfed by what Henan officials did for Lianhua. For more than a year, the company had been in financial trouble, suffering from bad investments and a slowdown in the MSG market. For months, banks pressured it for roughly $217 million in unpaid loans.

The Henan Province government stepped into the breach. The Henan governor, Li Chengyu, organized a meeting at Lianhua headquarters in July to devise a plan to save the company. The Henan government also gave the company more than $25 million. "The government is confident and the business is confident that Lianhua Gourmet can be brought around," Mr. Li said, according to the Chinese financial press. "The banks should support Lianhua Gourmet." The signal was clear. Henan's government would make certain Lianhua survived.

In Huangmengying, Mr. Wang again visited Ms. Kong, the young mother with cancer, who was also struggling to survive. Her resolve in June to forego chemotherapy had withered with her health by August. She was pale and coughing as she explained that she had again borrowed money for more treatment. She would leave in a few days. But it meant that she could not pay her sons' school fees for the fall semester. Her husband could not find work and had no money to send. And the friends who had loaned her money said they could loan her no more. "I'm scared," she said. Only an hour earlier, Mr. Wang had been walking to visit Ms. Kong when a woman rushed toward him and knelt in a formal kowtow, touching her lips against the dirt. Her husband had dropped dead. Doctors had examined the body and discovered a tumor. She needed Mr. Wang to help with funeral arrangements. He asked where she and her husband lived.

In a small brick hut, about 50 yards from the village stream, answered the woman, Liu Sumei. Ms. Liu, 50, led Mr. Wang to a friend's home, where her husband's body lay in a coffin under a large poster of Mao Zedong. Ms. Liu had not known her husband had cancer, only that he was in poor health. But in Huangmengying, she said, poor health is not unusual. "Every family has someone who is sick," she said. "All the neighbors."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.