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Saving China's endangered environment

As activists struggle to halt ecological degradation, the state is slowly opening up to efforts to clean up deadly pollution

RESEARCH: RICK CASH

XIPING, CHINA — Zhang Changjian was seeing patients in his storefront village clinic when a friend burst in, looking angry.''There's green and black stuff pouring into the river from the factory,'' he said. ''What should we do?''

Dr. Zhang grabbed his water-sampling bottle and his digital camera and went down to the factory drain to gather evidence. But when environmental-protection officials finally showed up hours later, they refused to test the bottled liquid. "They said it wasn't an official sample, so they couldn't use it," says Dr. Zhang with a knowing smile. By then the factory had been alerted, and the green and black water had stopped running.

It was a familiar runaround for the stocky 45-year-old, a village doctor turned pollution fighter who is helping lead a new wave of environmental activism in China.

A cheerful man with a grin like the pot-bellied Buddhas found in local temples, Dr. Zhang has put his career at risk to stop the chemical factory from fouling the air, water and soil of his hometown in the lush hills of southeastern China.

He plays a constant cat-and-mouse game with the factory and its protectors in the local government, with the doctor in the role of pesky, persistent mouse.

He snaps pictures of crippled trees and murky streams, and posts them on the Internet. He peppers local officials with meticulously detailed e-mails about pollution incidents. He pesters Chinese journalists to publicize his fight. Sometimes, he even creeps down to the factory drain to collect samples in the middle of the night, when he says the factory often discharges wastes under the cover of darkness.

He has even sued the factory, still an unusual step for an ordinary citizen in China.

None of this has won him friends among local authorities. The health board is trying to take away his medical licence, a serious threat to a father with four children.

"Dr. Zhang is a rare kind of man," said local farmer Soong Lin Gui, the friend who sounded the alarm about the polluted water. "To protect the environment of the village, he is ready to sacrifice everything."

Apart from Mr. Soong and a few other friends, Dr. Zhang has no allies in his fight with the factory. But though he may not know it, he is far from alone. Across China, a determined new breed of activist is fighting to save China's endangered environment.

In the polluted Huai river basin of north China, a retired military man photographs fouled waterways and visits cancer victims on his bicycle. In Chongqing in the west, an activist risks arrest to stop the pollution of the reservoir that is being formed by the Three Gorges Dam.

"A lot of politically aware people have moved to the environment movement," said Beijing activist Wen Bo, who travels the country, handing out grants from a private U.S. foundation to worthy environmental groups. "You can criticize government policies in the environmental field in a way you can't in other areas."

Others confirm that Beijing is giving activists more freedom, permitting private environmental groups to form and allowing students to organize anti-pollution campaigns and the media to investigate pollution scandals.

Though activists must still watch their step, it is a big change from the time when Dai Qing, an internationally known author and dissident, had to endure constant harassment from security police for speaking out against the Three Gorges, the $25-billion hydroelectric project on the Yangtze River.

Today, China's leaders acknowledge that they have a problem with the environment. The World Bank says that 13 of the world's 20 most air-polluted cities are in China. Air pollution alone is estimated to cause 300,000 early deaths each year, and the problem could get worse as newly prosperous Chinese rush to buy cars and as coal-fired power plants work overtime to meet the energy needs of a booming economy.

Three-quarters of the rivers running through Chinese cities are so polluted that they cannot be used for drinking or fishing. Acid rain falls on one-third of the Chinese landmass.

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.

"They told me it would be good fertilizer in five years," he said. "Now my land is ruined and my sons and grandson will have nothing."

The villagers were so angry about the pollution that they donated $1,600 to help Dr. Zhang pursue his lawsuit against the factory, but local police confiscated the money and beat up two locals who tried to stand in their way, the doctor says. Filed in 2002, his suit is stuck in the courts, with no sign of when or even if it might come to trial.

When Dr. Zhang confronted the president of the company about the pollution, "He just shook my hand firmly, patted my back and said, 'I think we're going to be great friends.' " The doctor says he hasn't heard from him since.

Dr. Zhang's campaign has not been completely fruitless. The factory stopped dumping its waste down the hillside, storing it on the factory site in a greenish-white pool instead. Company officials say they spent $300,000 on improving waste-water treatment too.

Inside the gates of the factory, a painted wall slogan reads: "Protecting the environment means protecting our productivity."

But when a journalist for government television checked the waste water coming out of a drain in the middle of the night, it was running tomato-soup red. Tests showed levels of chromium 6, a chemical that has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, at 20 times the allowable limit.

Dr. Zhang says the village suffered a mysterious blackout when the journalist's report aired last year, and he accuses local officials of arranging the power failure to stop villagers from seeing it.

Factory managers declined to be interviewed for this article and local environment officials did not return faxed and telephoned requests for comment.

Asked why he persists with his activism despite all the risk and frustrations, Dr. Zhang said he has no choice. "I can't go back now. If I stop, the government will use me as an example of how you can never beat them.

"Somebody has to speak up, or this village will not survive."

The stench of progress

Booming China is a bust where environmental controls are concerned, with dramatic consequences for its people's health. Factory after factory emits tonnes of toxic chemicals; some go so far as to discharge waste in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

The contaminated atmosphere is blamed for 300,000 premature deaths each year, and acid rain drenches one-third of China's land mass. Despite official harassment, a bold and growing band of environmental activists is challenging official complacency and raising awareness of the dangers of pollution.

..................................Particulate matter

..................................in micrograms

..................................per cubic metres,

Rank....Cities..................1995 to 2001

1-Delhi, India........................187

2-Cairo, Egypt........................178

3-Calcutta, India......................153

4-Tianjin...............................149

5-Chongqing...........................147

6-Kanpur, India.......................136

7-Lucknow, India.....................136

8-Shenyang............................120

9-Zhengzhou...........................116

11-Jinan..................................112

12-Lanzhou..............................109

12-Beijing................................106

13-Taiyuan..............................105

14-Ahmedabad, India...................104

15-Chengdu..............................103

16-Jakarta, Indonesia....................103

17-Anshan.................................99

18-Nanchang..............................94

19-Wuhan.................................94

20-Harbin..................................91

SOURCE: 2004 WORLD DEVELOPMENT INDICATORS

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