A businessman's U.S.$32,000 dare to a local environmental officials to take a 20-minute dip in a highly contaminated river in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang has highlighted the worsening water pollution crisis in China.
Hangzhou businessman Jin Zengmin had tweeted on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging platform this week that a rubber shoe factory had been dumping wastewater into the river in Ruian city while officials turned a blind eye, and that the area had an exceptionally high cancer rate.
Jin had offered Ruian's environmental protection chief Bao Zhengmin and other officials 200,000 yuan (U.S. $32,000) to swim for 20 minutes in the river.
Speaking in the wake of the online dare this week, an official who answered the phone at the city's government environmental protection department said officials had found no evidence to suggest that a nearby rubber shoe factory was polluting local waterways as the tweet had suggested.
The official, who gave only his surname Li, said in an interview that pollution in the river "isn't the sole responsibility of the environmental protection department" and that littering by the local population was to blame.
"Ruian has a population of more than a million people, and there are hundreds of thousands more from out of town [living here]," he said.
"[In Jin's village], there is nowhere to collect trash, and the villagers throw it into the river."
"There are now more than 6,000 people in a village where there were only 2,000 previously," Li said. "In some villages, the out-of-towners have doubled the population many times over, and there is more and more trash and industrial waste than before."
But he conceded that some of the pollution might be coming from the Jinguang Industrial Park. "There is white foam floating on the river nearby, and the water is very black," Li said.
Environmental chief Bao has made no response to Jin's dare, but Li said his colleagues had visited a village on the banks of the waterway and cleaned up trash.
"The day after Jin Zengmin posted his tweet, the leaders of the Ruian environmental protection department went to Jin's village along with local village officials."
"They led a clean-up of trash from the river by local villagers," he said.
Jin's post prompted a flurry of retweets and sparked similar offer in nearby Cangnan county for a U.S.$48,000 dip in a filthy river there.
More than three decades of rapid economic growth have sent China’s waterways into a severe environmental crisis, officials say, with a number of high-profile industrial accidents along major rivers in recent years.
Around one-fifth of China's waterways are so polluted that they are too toxic for humans to have contact with the water, while at least 40 percent of rivers are seriously polluted, water resources vice-minister Hu Siyi said last year.
This week, authorities in northern China punished 39 people in connection with the leakage into a river of around nine tons of aniline, a chemical used to make polyurethane, official media reported.
Retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang said a close-knit network of vested interests at local level meant that polluting enterprises were hardly ever brought to book.
"The government and local business are all in it together, because the government needs the tax revenue from business," Sun said.
"Also, some officials go into business on their own account, and the environmental authorities turn a blind eye to any pollution produced by their enterprises."
90 percent of groundwater polluted
The latest data from Beijing this month revealed that around 90 percent of groundwater in China is polluted, much of it severely, with activists blaming local governments for protecting polluting enterprises.
In a recent survey of water quality in 118 cities across China, 64 percent of cities had "severely polluted" groundwater, Xinhua news agency quoted experts from the ministry of water resources as saying.
Activists say local people suffer from increased rates of various diseases linked to such pollution, and the lack of clean water can affect farming communities' ability to make a living at all.
Because of close ties between business and local governments, China's comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation is rarely enforced at local level, according to environmental campaigners.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.