In a joke currently circulating on China’s most popular social media, Sina Weibo, a Beijing resident boasts about his happy life in the badly air-polluted capital, saying that every morning when he opens the window he can enjoy a free smoke.
A Shanghai resident sniffed:“Bah! Every time we turn on the tap, we get free pork soup.”
Hilarious, but grim. Deadly air is shrouding most big Chinese cities and thousands of dead pigs have been found in the Huangpu River: things are bad enough that China’s normally compliant Parliament has begun to protest.
By last week, more than 6,000 rotting pig carcasses had been cleaned up from Huangpu River, which supplies tap water to Shanghai. These dead pigs were mostly dumped by nearby pig breeders in Zhejiang province. They don’t have the capacity to do biosafety disposal of sick animals, nor can they get compensation from the government for such losses from disease due to a lack of insurance and compensation mechanisms in the industry. Traces of some common pig viruses have been found in some of the animals floating in the river.
Experts from the central government claimed the issue had been appropriately solved, ruling out the possibility of major threat to public health. They further clarified no sick animals had been butchered and sold for meat in this case. However,one would expect the rumours to continue because many similar cases have been reported in the past several years.
The tip of the iceberg
The dead pigs of Shanghai are just a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In recent years increasing numbers of “cancer villages” in China have been revealed, mainly on social media sites and blogs where activists and environmental experts raise public awareness of soil and groundwater contamination. In these polluted areas, soaring rates of diseases like stomach cancer are believed to be caused by drinking contaminated water containing hazardous chemicals disposed of by local industries.
In February, Deng Fei, a former investigative journalist and now an influential activist, initiated a campaign, inviting Chinese “netizens” to take photos of polluted rivers in their hometowns and upload them to Weibo. Meanwhile, in coalition with journalists and environmental activists, he launched a “China Water Crisis Independent Investigation” which regularly releases information on Weibo about water quality nationwide. His call received thousands of responses from net users, and for the first time provoked a national debate on groundwater safety.
Based on an insider source, Deng further revealed on Weibo the truth about a recent water dispute that arose in Weifang prefecture, Shandong province. Some local companies are believed to have discharged underground pollution for years, severely contaminating ground water and giving the area one of the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world. However, during the investigation the local government tried to cover up and even block media coverage.
Outrage over pollution has widely spread among ordinary Chinese people, and even attracted attention on social media channels throughout the world.
Some Chinese media have also joined the crusade against water pollution. Event People’s Daily, the Party’s mouthpiece outlet, has stepped in and issued a series of appeals on its Weibo account. They warn “enterprises shouldn’t poison the public to chase higher profits; government agencies shouldn’t loosen their regulations for the sake of their work performance”, “we want a GDP that won’t kill the next generation, and from the government to the public, we should all trumpet the cause of water pollution control and preserve clean water sources for a beautiful China”.
According to the China Geological Survey, 90% of underground water has suffered different degrees of contamination, with more than 60% suffering severe contamination. Also according to statistics released by Xinhua News Agency, in 118 Chinese cities only 3% of the underground water is considered moderately clean.
A no-win situation
Furious public opinion has made it hard for the authorities to ignore these crises. During the annual National People’s Congress and China People’s Political Consultative Conference which has just ended, the questions around water quality as well as other environmental issues in China were frequently raised on the urgent agenda. The new elected government has pledged to tackle the growing health crisis provoked by environmental degradation.
There are appeals to speed up environmental legislation to improve environment quality and push for a strict time-line for solving environmental problems. The new leadership has effectively announced several new laws and standards on environmental protection over the last two months, including a detailed implementation framework from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. It seems the new leaders have been gradually living up to their promise to establish an effective service-oriented government which draws a clear line between itself and the old.
Keeping the balance between economic growth and environmental protection is a critical challenge for the new government. China is still on a course of seeking maximum economic growth. Unless the whole nation gets down to pursuing a sustainable development, there will never be a win-win situation in the relationship between human and nature.