Skip navigation

Saving China's endangered environment

Continued from Page 1

Neighbours such as Japan and South Korea complain that it is falling on them, too. In the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong, air-pollution readings recently hit a new record as filthy air drifted into the territory from the industries of southeastern China.

With respiratory and water-borne diseases on the rise, the public is beginning to question the cost of China's pell-mell economic growth.

"In the past 10 years, there has been a huge upsurge in interest in the environment among the Chinese people," said Elizabeth Economy, the American author of a new book on China's environment, The River Runs Black. "They see that 20 people in a village of 200 have brain tumours and they say, 'Maybe something's wrong here.' "

Slowly, haltingly, the government is beginning to react. The state-controlled newspapers are full of articles about government moves to safeguard the environment, from cracking down on polluters in the upper Yellow River to building a new garbage processing plant in Mongolia.

Conscious of China's image as the 2008 Beijing Olympics approach, and genuinely worried about how environmental destruction might hurt the country's future, officials are starting to talk about a "Green GDP" that would measure the quality, not just the quantity, of economic growth.

In April, Premier Wen Jiabao halted plans to build 13 hydroelectric dams on the spectacular Nu River in southwest China after protests from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a coalition of 80 local environmental groups.

The problem, says Martin Baker, spokesman for Greenpeace in Hong Kong, is that Beijing's clean-up orders often don't filter down to the provinces, where powerful and often corrupt officials hold sway.

That is where people like Dr. Zhang come in. "They're the eyes and ears," Mr. Baker said. "The more people we have like this, the harder it will be to get away with things."

Dr. Zhang has been keeping an eye on the chemical factory since it moved to his village of Xiping in 1994 after new environmental regulations forced it to move out of the provincial capital, Fuzhou.

Now the biggest of its kind in Asia, the factory produces potassium chlorate, a white salt that is used in the manufacture of matches, fireworks, paper, bleach and disinfectant. Explosive under heat, it has also been used by terrorists to make bombs.

Soon after the opening, a flood of patients started arriving at Dr. Zhang's office with mysterious new complaints: headaches, vomiting, nausea, dizziness, itchy skin, dry coughs, teary eyes, hair loss.

The doctor complained to the factory and to the county government. Nothing happened. The county has a 30-per-cent share in the company, Pingrong United Chemical, and gets a quarter of its revenues from taxing it.

So Dr. Zhang started documenting the factory's pollution and the illness he believes it was -- and still is -- causing. According to his carefully kept records, stored on his office computer, the number of cancer deaths in the village of 2,000 people rose from one for 1990-1994, to 17 for 1999-2001. Meanwhile, average life expectancy fell from 68.3 years to 59.7.

The patients crowding the doctor's simple waiting room on a recent weekend all blamed the factory for their maladies. Farmer Bao Jin Xiu, 32, said she had been forced to spend the equivalent of $800 Canadian on a throat operation because of fumes from the factory. The average annual income in Xiping is only $300, less than a quarter of the China-wide average. Like most people in China, the villagers have to pay for their own medical care.

Ms. Bao pulled up her five-year-old daughter's shirt to show how she had also suffered from the pollution. Her back and legs were covered in black spots, the remnants of the blisters that many children in the village have developed.

Villagers say that, apart from damaging their health, the pollution has stunted their rice crops, killed off valuable stands of bamboo, and left fruit and nut trees barren.

Farmer Zhang Xi Di, 53, said the factory leased his land for $160 a year, then used it for a dump, pouring tractor-loads of powdery yellow and white waste down a hillside.

Recommend this article? 1 votes

Back to top