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Monday, September 12, 2005

Pollution Sparks Outrage and Riots in China

Pollution is causing social unrest in China and severing ties between the countryside and party leaders (more on pollution in China here):

China's Rising Tide of Protest Sweeping Up Party Officials, by Edward Cody, The Washington Post:  The first thing villagers noticed was the mud. Silt gradually thickened the waters of the Chaoshui River, they recalled, and before long fouled the rice paddies that provide them a meager but dependable living here in the rugged hills of central China. By the beginning of this year, the fish had disappeared and the once-pristine water turned black. Women could no longer do the family laundry along the banks. Then, as the weather warmed this spring, the villagers said, children started coming down with skin rashes after taking a dip. The reason their river was going bad … was that scores of mines containing an industrial metal known as molybdenum had started operating in the hills upstream...

Repeatedly, the villagers complained to county authorities, demanding that the mines be shut down or brought under control. But with mineral prices shooting up, the lure of profits was too much to resist. Thousands of small-scale miners -- some with permits, others sneaking in to work at night -- kept raking the mountainsides for ore and flushing what they did not need into the Chaoshui. In May, the enraged villagers gave up on the government and decided to organize a raid on the mines. Over several frenzied hours, the wiry villagers used farm tools and their bare hands to destroy more than 200 mining sites, defying a local policeman who tried to rein in their fury. What was remarkable about the raid was that the village Communist Party secretary and elected village chief declined to intervene, revealing a crack in the iron discipline traditionally enforced by government security organs and the party apparatus. In the nearby village of Guideng, just three weeks earlier, another mob tore down mining facilities, in this case a pollution-spewing refinery for another metal, vanadium. They also reported passive complicity on the part of the Communist Party secretary and elected leader. And now a group of irate village leaders in this remote region have gone a step further, moving from passive complicity to active support of the peasant cause. In a rare act of open defiance, the village leaders have joined forces against the central government in an unauthorized organization. They have threatened to resign en masse if authorities fail to take swift action. Unless something is done soon, the leaders said in a protest letter to Premier Wen Jiabao, more peasant violence will follow.

…The two eruptions of peasant violence in the hills near here offer a glimpse of a much larger wave of popular unrest. Thousands of protests break out every year in China's cities and villages, even though such demonstrations are prohibited. The protests have become a major concern for President Hu Jintao's government... The village party chiefs and elected leaders here have not played their assigned role of enforcing government authority because of a shared outrage that the county and provincial officials charged with protecting the environment have not protected the rivers, peasants said...

These dramatic hills, gashed by deep gorges through which rivers rush down toward the mighty Yangtze, seem like an unlikely site for conflict. … But mining has changed things drastically in the last few years. ... The magnesium, molybdenum and vanadium buried here have sparked the equivalent of a gold rush, bringing economic growth but also pollution. … The region's main stream, the Qingshui, whose name means "clear water," has in the last three years turned from limpid to oily black. Yellowish foam was seen floating on the surface where the river snakes down from the hills. Local authorities… reported the Qingshui contains unhealthy levels of magnesium and chromium. Hua, the village leader… is defying the party. He has recruited more than 30 other village leaders into an association, prohibited because it has not received approval from the Communist Party. They have named it the Leading Group of 100,000 People Living Along the Qingshui River Protecting Our People's River… But Hua and his friends … have almost given up hope...

The 4,000 residents of Guideng village have built their simple homes on a hillside sloping lazily toward the Qingshui River. ... About 3,000 feet away from Guideng, just above the river on a steep hillside, three vanadium refining factories rose up and started operations at the beginning of April. ... Villagers said the river-bound runoff was not what got them riled. Rather, it was that the three factories, each with a row of 14 smelting ovens and a brick chimney, sent up a powdery sediment along with their smoke. Villagers said their eyes hurt and their lungs got congested. … About 100 villagers, upset because chest congestion forced several dozen middle school students to miss classes, marched on the factory soon after it opened. The peasants said the owner, Yang Changjun, … reassured them that the smoke and sediment were not harmful. Doubting his word, the villagers sought out local township officials, who also said the powder was not dangerous. When the villagers protested that people were getting sick, "they didn't pay any attention," recalled Su, the village elder. … About 100 villagers visited the factories … on April 19, making threats over the sediment and trading insults with the guards. By then, it was becoming clear something would have to be done. Talk of a raid began. "I am not going to oppose you if you destroy these factories, but I won't support you, either," the villagers quoted their village head, Liu Qian, as saying … Three days later, … an estimated 600 farmers from Guideng and neighboring villages joined forces and attacked the factories…

In nearby Xiachaoshui, villagers seethed over the wildcat molybdenum mining operations on the upstream hillsides. The water used to flush out valuable ore, they found out, entered the porous, rocky terrain and seeped into streams that feed the Chaoshui, making the cherished waterway a channel of mud and poisonous chemicals. Repeated complaints to government officials brought no response, villagers complained. … The villagers planned an assault. … the crowd amounted to about half the village's 1,000 residents by the time it got moving …. Nearby villages joined in as people moved toward the mountainside. The villagers, now amounting to nearly 1,000, rushed into the mining sites shortly before noon, using hammers and shovels to tear down tarpaulin shelters and smash the washing and sifting equipment used to separate molybdenum from the dirt…

By midafternoon, the destruction stopped, although hundreds of other sites still dotted neighboring hillsides. Tired and still angry, the farmers moved on to Minle, hoping that now their complaints would be taken more seriously. The farmers told two deputy mayors that more sites would be destroyed unless the mining operations were shut down within a week, Yao recalled. The officials responded by calling the farmers examples of "Three Nothing-Left," an insulting reference to Japanese soldiers during World War II whose policy, Chinese say, was "kill until nothing is left, burn until nothing is left and loot until nothing is left." By the end of a long shouting match, however, the officials said they understood the farmers' anger…

    Posted by on Monday, September 12, 2005 at 10:44 AM in China, Economics, Environment, International Trade | Permalink  TrackBack (2)  Comments (8)


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