Pollution Crisis Sparks Mass Popular Protests

Chinese villagers gather dead pigs in a town in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, March 13, 2013

Updated at 1:45 p.m. ET on 2013-04-18

Worsening levels of air and water pollution, as well as disputes over the effects of heavy metals from mining and industry, have forced ordinary Chinese to become increasingly involved in environmental protection and protest, says the Friends of Nature group.

In its annual report for 2013, the nongovernmental group said many people have been prompted into action by China's environmental crisis, sparking a rise in "mass incidents" linked to pollution.

Last year also saw growing concerns from environmental groups over the falsification of pollution testing and environmental impact assessments, the group said in the report released this week.

Henan-based environmental activist Cui Cheng said that people have already realized how large an impact pollution is having on their lives, and that many have begun carrying out their own tests.

"Most people know this is not a trivial matter," Cui said. "We can't wait for government ... departments to [announce things]. It's too urgent."

"We are going to start using our own eyes and our own figures to get to the truth," he said.

Liu Jianqiang, China editor of ecological website Chinadialogue.net, said that environmental protests had grown larger and more widespread during 2012, and were more high-profile than in previous years, often resulting in a positive response from the authorities.

"There has been a huge increase in public debate and in the self-testing of air quality and water pollution," Liu said. "This shows that the general public isn't going to let pollution go unchallenged."

Vested interests

Meanwhile, Beijing-based activist Song Xinzhou, who founded the nongovernment group Green Beijing, said the point has now been reached at which most people are severely affected by pollution.

"It affects their lives," Song said. "Before, they weren't that bothered about it. They were like the frog in the saucepan, unaware that the water was getting warmer."

"But when environmental problems get to a certain point, they have a direct impact on our lives," he said. "Everyone needs their health and a reasonable quality of life."

"After [many years of] constant economic growth, people want something different."

The report singled out groundwater pollution as the biggest new environmental issue to emerge in 2012.

Former photographer and Huaihe river activist Huo Daishan said that the flow of information about the extent of pollution is often choked off by those in positions of power with vested interests in polluting industries.

"In the process of developing their economies, local governments have focused purely on economic growth," Huo said.

"We can say that very severe levels of environmental pollution have been caused by an inappropriate rate of development."

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.

Campaigners say that China has a comprehensive set of environmental protection legislation, but that close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level.

Dead pigs

The dumping of tens of thousands of dead pigs into the Huangpu river in eastern China in recent weeks was a gruesome reminder of the far-reaching environmental crisis, which has sparked fears over public health.

The ministry of agriculture in Beijing has blamed the tide of dead pigs on a lack of education among pig farmers.

While complaints and public protests about pollution and unsafe drinking water are increasingly common across China, the dead pigs quickly became a grisly emblem of people's worries about the effects of pollution on their health, and a target of online satire.

However, it is only one in a long line of water pollution scandals to hit China, where one-fifth of the country's waterways are so polluted that they are too toxic for humans to have contact with, while at least 40 percent of rivers are "seriously" polluted, officials say.

Earlier this year, data from Beijing 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, the official Xinhua news agency quoted experts from the ministry of water resources as saying.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Liu Jianqiang as editor-in-chief of the rights website JusticeNet.


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