In early July, a big news story emerged on Chinese websites: "South-north Water Diversion Poisons Fish in Dongping Lake, Farmers Bankrupt."
The north-south diversion project had diverted large amounts of sewage into Dongping Lake, resulting in the deaths of most of the farmed fish, causing economic disaster for the fishing families, and resulting in losses of around 50 million yuan.
The fishing community was brought to its knees, wailing, and 60 police were sent to stand guard against any attempt to petition or stand up for their rights ... The villagers have had no recourse but to curse the [ruling] Communist Party.
A fish-farmer surnamed Gu said that fish had died the day after the release of water by the water diversion project ... after a slick of toxic water came down the canal from Jiangxi, to the south. Wherever this black water flowed, there the fish died. As soon as it flowed into the lake, the fish started dying ... The fishing community had invested 10, 20 years in these farms ... and the women were kneeling by the edge of the lake, crying.
What happened next has become a common tale in China: The villagers went to the township government try to talk about it, but no one paid them any attention. So they took their bedding rolls to camp outside the provincial government buildings and petition, but they were escorted home by the township government again.
After that, the police arrived and started detaining the villagers' representatives. Some ran away, and others were caught.
Then the police clamped down on the villagers, parking more than a dozen vehicles on both routes into the village and keeping watch, surrounding it day and night. Those who were detained were released after paying 5,000 yuan, and those who didn't pay were locked up. And so it goes ...
A closed door
Why did they have to lock up these people who were already bankrupt?
An official surnamed Chen from the propaganda department of Dongping county explained: "More than 100 villagers burst into offices of the Yinshan [township] Party committee, breaking down the main doors of the government buildings, and an employee was injured."
"The villagers filled the buildings with dead fish, even down to the beds in the employee dormitories, The police had already investigated the case according to law, and the results of that investigation were still pending."
The villagers admit to having broken down the doors and thrown dead fish around the place, because the officials closed the main doors and refused to let them in ... How can you arrest the master for trying to break into his own house, when the servants have closed the door against him?
It seems that the master-servant relationship has been completely turned on its head. There is no way to defend [the government's] position, and throwing a few dead fish on a few beds really isn't going too far. That was a good job! Well thrown!
There were differences in the reported reasons behind the fish die-offs, too. The villagers said they were poisoned by sewage from the diversion project. But Mr. Chen of the county propaganda department said the problem was that the fish were overstocked.
"The provincial fisheries bureau investigated the cause of the dead fish," he said. "Firstly, the rearing density of the fish was too high in Gu Pang village, more than eight or nine times the scientific level. In recent years, there were no mass fish die-offs, because the density wasn't as big."
"Secondly, the expert investigation revealed ... that decomposing plant matter was blown in ... on southeasterly winds for three consecutive days, causing the deaths of the fish by hypoxia."
Authorities at fault
Such rhetoric will make it hard for outsiders to judge. I may sympathize with the bankrupt farmers, and intuitively believe that the south-north water diversion project is to blame. Now the government has invited in some expert to 'speak the truth.'
Overstocking and rotting plant matter can indeed cause a lot of dead fish. Nevertheless, I also fully support the victims, the villagers, because this stalemate has been caused by the authorities.
In a country where you have freedom of the press, there would be a variety of accounts from a great many reporters. If there was freedom to conduct media interviews and balanced reporting, which allows the parties to hold open discussions on television, the truth wouldn't be hard to find.
In a society with the rule of law, where there is the possibility of a neutral judicial intervention, which would be allowed to conduct an objective and impartial investigation and allow an open debate in the courts, justice wouldn't be difficult to restore.
Perhaps we should set up a consensus or a modern version of "natural law," [which states that], in a single-party dictatorship, we can't believe a word the authorities say. They lie with impunity, and the people must continually suffer their shameless and unending revenge attacks.
Zheng Yi, a noted writer and author of Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China, writes a regular column for RFA's Mandarin Service called China Environmental Bulletin.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.