Global Policy Forum

Pollution Poisons China's Progress


By David J. Lynch

USA Today
July 4, 2005



A pipe funnels wastewater
from chemical plants
into the Feng Chan River,
which runs through Xiditou.
Thanks to China's incredible boom, the local economy here has nearly doubled in just four years. More than 100 factories occupy what were once unbroken fields of rice and cotton. Even the Petro China station, boasting 30 gasoline pumps, reflects a sense of abundance. But in this corner of northern China, about 60 miles east of Beijing, prosperity has come at a fearful cost. Dozens of local chemical factories - makers of toxins including sulfuric acid - disgorge wastewater directly into the Feng Chan river, which is black as ink and clotted with debris. Another nearby canal is so discolored, locals call it xiao hong he, or "little red river."

Decades of such pollution have allowed industrial poisons to leach into groundwater, contaminating drinking supplies and leading to a rash of cancers, residents say. In this village, where the air has a distinctive sour odor, the rate of cancer is more than 18 times the national average. In nearby Liukuaizhuang, it's 30 times the national figure, according to state-owned media. "The water is terrible," says Li Baoqi, 41, a veterinary medicine salesman. "Drinking this kind of water is basically like suicide."

Xiditou's plight is far from unique. No country has lifted more people out of poverty faster than modern China. But in its pell-mell rush to create a xiaokang, or well-off society, Beijing is sacrificing its environment and public health on an altar of unbridled commerce. Now, environmental damage - by threatening China's ability to maintain rapid growth  -  is commanding the attention of Chinese leaders. "The environment is beginning to bite back," says Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The past two decades, China's economy has grown at an average annual rate of more than 9%. But the economic cost of environmental harm, measured in public health, worker absenteeism and remediation efforts, is becoming prohibitively high. "This miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace," Pan Yue, deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Administration, told the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Environmental injury costs China 8% to 15% of its annual gross domestic product, Pan said. In the north, encroaching deserts are prompting human migrations that swell overburdened cities. In the south, factories have closed periodically for lack of water, according to Economy, who wrote a book last year on China's environmental woes. The World Bank estimates such shutdowns cost $14 billion annually in lost output. "What we're going to see is changes in local or regional economies," she says. "Certain types of industrial development simply may not be feasible."

Finding balance won't be easy

Yet, altering the balance between economic development and environmental protection won't be easy. In the United States, citizen activism, a free press and an independent judiciary forced corporations to respect the environment. In China, the ruling Communist Party regards all three with suspicion, if not hostility. Residents of Xiditou found that out the hard way. They began complaining to government officials about their water five years ago, when the first batch of unexplained cancers appeared. National environmental officials, they say, were sympathetic and repeatedly told their local counterparts to act.

But local environment officials don't answer to Beijing. Their funding, perks and promotions come from local party leaders  - who typically place economic development above everything else. Over time, a familiar pattern emerged: Villagers would complain to Beijing. Officials there would tell local leaders to respond. Nothing would happen. "It's obvious these factories are the economic support of the area. ... It would be a very hard decision by the local government to close them all down," says Wang Canfa, director of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims in Beijing.

Cancer-causing substance

The center, one of the few non-governmental organizations tolerated by the Communist government, detected high levels of bacteria and fluoride in the villages' water in 2003. It also found in Liukuaizhuang's water concentrations of a cancer-causing substance called hydroxybenzene that exceeded government limits. Exposure to hydroxybenzene, an acidic byproduct of chemical manufacturing, causes cancer by depressing the immune system. Small amounts of fluoride help prevent tooth decay. But at high levels, the substance makes bones brittle.

Wang Peiting, 41, was diagnosed in March with cirrhosis of the liver and leukemia. "Prolonged exposure to environmental toxins" can trigger cirrhosis, according to the American Liver Foundation. And benzene is a potential cause of leukemia, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Her doctor says Wang, a mother of daughters ages 16 and 11, is doomed. But her husband, Li Baoqi, hasn't broken the news to her yet.

By Chinese standards, the villages here are not poor. Some people own cars. Others enjoy totems of affluence - cell phones, microwave ovens, small televisions with rabbit-ear antennas. But the price tag for this comparative comfort is widespread, unexplained illness.

Cotton farmer Liu Dequan, 52, initially ignored the persistent cough he developed last year. But after he began losing weight, he visited the hospital in Tianjin, about 12 miles away, where doctors stunned him with a lung-cancer diagnosis. So far, his treatment has cost him his 50,000 yuan savings (about $6,038) and forced him to borrow an additional 65,000 yuan ($7,850) from friends and relatives. Liu blames the factories for his fatal illness. "It's definitely the air and water around here," he says. "I'm absolutely sure about that. I don't smoke, and our family has no history of lung cancer. In fact, my family doesn't have a history of cancer at all."

People here now regard their drinking water as little better than liquid poison. But unable to afford bottled water for all of their daily needs, most adults continue to drink it. They buy mineral water only for their children.

A list of those who've died

Villagers have compiled a list of 261 people who have died in Xiditou and Liukuaizhuang since 1999; it bears the fingerprints of relatives who provided the information. Because some of the people died in their 70s and 80s, not all of the deaths likely resulted from pollution. But there are far more people who died before their time, ages 25, 28, 19, 37, 4, 34 and 36. One 9-year-old boy died of brain cancer. "These young people should not be dying," says Lu Xiurong, 63, whose daughter-in-law, another non-smoker with no family history of lung cancer, became ill in 2002. Lu Delan, a mother of two, was 42 years old when she died. Lu Xiurong is convinced pollution killed her. "I have five neighbors who died of lung cancer," she says. "That's why I started to think this was caused by the pollution."

The privately owned factories date to the early 1980s, when China began turning to private enterprise. They are clustered alongside the Yong Ding Xin River, which ultimately feeds the Bohai Sea, 25 miles east: Jing Bei Yo Qi, maker of paints and varnishes; Feng Tian Chemical Co., which produces sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide; and ink maker Yong Ming.

The Xian Dai Chemical Factory, located between the Yong Ding and Feng Chan rivers, produces dyes for leather and cotton products. Each day, its roughly 100 workers pass a slogan emblazoned on the wall in bright red: "Protect the environment and create a better world for the next generation." A woman surnamed Zhao, who answered the factory phone and identified herself as a secretary in the general manager's office, said the company complies with government regulations. She refused to provide her full name and referred a caller to another phone number, which turned out to be a facsimile machine.

Xiditou officials certainly don't have to go far to see evidence of pollution. Less than one mile from the county government office, foaming green wastewater spews from a pipe directly into the Feng Chan. A thick, emerald scum coats the water's surface. Even the riverbank is dyed a mottled green. But the local government appears more interested in quieting the problem than in solving it. On June 5, officials confiscated villagers' rented bus and blocked about 60 people from traveling to Beijing to mark World Environment Day, residents say.

Most of the protesters gave up. But about 20 continued to Beijing by train. When they reached the capital, they were intercepted by Xiditou police who followed them to the offices of the State Environmental Protection Administration. Once back home, Li says, a local party official threatened him, saying, "I can put you in jail any time."

A family moved

Li moved his family out of Xiditou several weeks ago because of harassment from local officials. Fearing government reprisals, the half-dozen villagers who described the pollution would speak with a foreign journalist only outside their village or on the telephone. Finally, in March of this year, stung by Beijing press coverage, the municipal government ordered the offending factories closed. And the factories complied - at least while the sun is up. Most of them simply switched to nighttime operations, several villagers said. Now, Wang's legal aid center is preparing a lawsuit against the chemical factories. But Xu Kezhu, the center's deputy director, says the complex case will be difficult to litigate because the local environmental bureau refuses to release its reports on the factories. And with so many companies involved, apportioning legal responsibility for the pollution is a nightmare.

The villagers plan to gather 30 to 40 cancer patients and try one more visit to Beijing's environmental mandarins. If that fails, they are mulling a protest in Tiananmen Square - sacred ground to the Communist leadership, which routinely crushes any who dare to dissent there. "There's nothing else we can do. It's our only choice," Li says. "It's better than sitting in our homes waiting to die."




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