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Pigs and pollution: China can’t keep ignoring the environment

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…

Thousands of dead pigs pulled from a Chinese river are pushing China’s parliament to take the environment more seriously. Philippe Semanaz

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.

Jimmy Palmiotti, the famous inker of Marvel Comics expressed his condemnation of water pollution in China. Twitter

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.

Chinese netizens take to the internet with their grim humour as a way of revolt.

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.

Join the conversation

18 Comments sorted by

  1. Alex Serpo


    Woops, China has poisoned all its groundwater - time to clean it up. The only problem is they probably can't. Mass pollution tends to be a one way process. Once it's happened it's happened. Here is Sydney we have poisoned our harbour. The solution? Don't fish in it for the next 100 years. Anything else will only make it worse. China will soon learn many of their problems are likely permanent.

  2. Trevor Kerr


    Thank you for this article, not just for the important specifics about pollution in China, but for its' contribution to the strengthening dialogue and cooperation between China & Australia. Recent statements by Australians with connections to China refer to grave concerns held by residents of Beijing about the quality of the air they breathe and their food & water.
    There is a golden opportunity for researchers in Australia & China to collaborate, more extensively, for each country's benefit. Ms Zhang is part of that, and there are many others.
    It seemed to me, from yesterday's media reports about the NPC, that the central Government is becoming more open to external commentary about conditions in parts of China and is signalling administrative reforms to make government more responsive to citizens' concerns.
    More directly, reports like this are crucial if China is to enjoy the benefits of growing more food for export.

  3. Tim Scanlon


    There are many concerns about agriculture in China, from their animal welfare, to their off-label chemical practices and lack of biosecurity. They really do have a long way to go in terms of agricultural practice education and enforcement strategies.

    Until they clean up their act, Australia really needs to look at helping their continued education and to also buy Australian. Our welfare and practices are some of the best, if not the best, in the world.

    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      "Until they clean up their act, Australia really needs to look at helping their continued education and to also buy Australian."

      Sadly, yes. My mail is that NZ-based food companies are importing frozen vegetables from China, blending them with local (NZ) product and repackaging them for the Australian market.

      The processes have similarities with how Romanian horse comes to be in "beef" products sold in the UK.

  4. Caleb Gardner

    Principle Research Fellow, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at University of Tasmania

    Extraordinary story Yanshuang, thanks. I visited last year and a problem for fish farmers was water getting into their ponds from the river! Fish farmers normally like water inflows because it flushes their ponds. In this case the river water killed fish.

    I was impressed with the passion of academics in China in discussing their concern as we see here also.

  5. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    If we adopt a global view of the anthropocene it is clear that some national economies are entirely out of control; the PRC is one such. The ecological cost of modernisation, based on an uncritical acceptance of the worst of western consumerism, is globally unacceptable. Agricultural and food practices, toxic cities, the global outreach of the PRC to rake in resources and all of this is designed to nothing more than allow the massive population of China to do what, exactly? China, because of overpopulation…

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    1. wilma western

      logged in via email

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Wow ,and China of all nations has had the most stringent birth control ever.

      "Containment" of China won't happen with all those goods now being manufactured there and all that support fotr the US dollar, even if 'containmnet" was a desirable policy.

  6. Garry Baker


    A couple of things worth adding. China doesn't have the long term resources to support even half its population, yet many of those vital resources are now on the brink of collapse... eg: Four of its major provinces are now at "extreme risk" of water shortages, let alone suffering from contaminated water

    Next, and not widely understood in the west. China's budget for its own internal security exceeds their entire Military spend - thus reflecting an internal fear by the central committee that the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 could spontaneously happen all over China. A homegrown Arab Spring, forcing a change of government.

    Could a major environmental catastrophe force such a change - yes it certainly could if the government failed to pacify the people

  7. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    I think this applies heavily to Australia and the US, lets be honest, we are as bad as they are we are just in a more mature and fortunate position

    "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."

  8. Yanshuang Zhang

    PhD Candidate at University of Queensland

    Just FYI :the very original version actually included a little tip about what ordinary people should do:

    For ordinary Chinese people, the first step should otherwise be to familiarize themselves with common knowledge about water contamination. Being “water-illiterate” is much worse than real illiteracy, yet at present there are much more water-illiterate citizens in China.

    I think this issue cannot merely rely on the government. Matter-of-factly, the biggest difficulty those investigative journalists…

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    1. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Yanshuang Zhang

      Thanks for this. "I eagerly call for ordinary people, both in China and other countries to raise awareness of ground water contamination. Because it's hard to detect pollution at that level but the consequences could be deadly."

      May I quote you on that in Australia's debate about coal seam gas exploitation?

  9. Geoff Taylor


    Adding to the misery in Beijing, although it is down to 4 degrees C, the heating has reportedly been turned off.

    1. Yanshuang Zhang

      PhD Candidate at University of Queensland

      In reply to Geoff Taylor

      The central heating supply is officially from November 15 to March 15 every year.
      Thanks to the NPC&CPPCC which ended on March 17, people in Beijing enjoyed two extra days' heating.
      Yeah it's still freezing but "technically" the heating should have been turned off on time.
      The irony lies in why it was extended this year.

  10. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Pollution of all sorts in China should come as no great surprise given it is becoming more and more the factory of the planet and the density of populations in many centres.
    Even though something like the Three Gorges Dam with the massive Hydroelectric Power that can be produced and the control for downstream flooding has some great environmentally friendly benefits, there is also much on the downside that will need to be addressed, pollution from increased river traffic being one not to mention…

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  11. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    Eloquent evidence that a larger = greater pollution and environmental degradation.

  12. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email

    Well Australian scientists could collaborate with the Chinese government, however, the Chinese government know they're willfully killing their own. The Chinese government is adept at citing "state secrets" when they're challenged on environmental issues.

    At least and due to public outrage (including a few brave souls who've been beaten up), the Chinese government has acknowledged that pollution has given rise to "cancer villages." How they can remediate these contaminated sites and protect…

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