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As China Spews Pollution, Villagers Rise Up

Environment-related unrest is spreading. It's not about old-growth forests; it's about business practices that are killing people.

September 03, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

HUASHUI, China — The tents are gone, the protesters have dispersed and the police have retreated to the shadows. But villagers remain in jail, local women are still tending deformed babies, and rage burns beneath the surface.

With the spread of pollution-related unrest, a contagious source of instability in the world's most populous country, Huashui stands out as a benchmark more than a year after farmers drew a line in the once-fertile earth.

Not only was it one of the largest known protests, with an estimated 10,000 police officers and desperate villagers battling in April 2005, but it also proved a rare case in which citizen outrage prevailed over deeply vested interests. A few months ago, the last of the area's 13 poison-spewing factories was shuttered.

"Without the riot, nothing would have changed," said Wang Xiaofang, a 43-year-old farmer. "People here finally reached their breaking point."

China's pollution has long been a focus of international criticism as clouds of toxic air waft over California and polluted rivers empty into the Pacific Ocean. Increasingly, however, China's own people are taking to the streets to demand an end to the birth defects, Technicolor water, dead crops and murky air that are robbing them of their livelihoods and lives.

"Environmental problems are increasingly a flash point of rising unrest in China," said Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher with Human Rights Watch. "You're not talking about the size of some woodland or whether to cut old-growth trees. You're talking about life-and-death issues for villagers."

In Huashui, villagers may have forced out the factories, but they have paid a price. Nearly a dozen farmers, including Wang's 40-year-old brother, Wang Liangping, have been sent to prison for as long as five years. Several say they have been tortured.

"We're not the troublemakers," Wang said. "It's the government and the factories that poisoned us. They created the problems, but we're the ones sent to jail."

And local authorities using spies, wiretaps, intimidation and close surveillance keep a tight grip on the area. As villagers spoke with a reporter in Wang's farmhouse, 10 police officers and local officials arrived, tipped off either by tapped cellphones or, as they later claimed, a "patriotic farmer" reporting the "illegal" gathering.

The reporter, along with a villager, was interrogated at the Dongyang police station for nearly three hours, his bags searched, cellphone records examined, notes confiscated and digital photographs deleted before he was made to sign a "self-confession."

Two local foreign affairs representatives remained with the reporter for the next 15 hours before delivering him to the airport.

China saw 50,000 environment-related riots, protests and disputes last year, an increase of nearly 30%, according to the state-run China Daily. Many were closely linked to other divisive and equally sensitive social issues, including the nation's growing wealth gap and illegal land seizures by local officials as new developments gobble up the countryside.

"This environmental problem has become one of the main factors that affect national safety and social stability," said Pan Yue, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration.

Analysts blame a top-down single-party system obsessed with economic growth in which officials are promoted for fulfilling five-year plans, not for listening to citizens.

Structural problems also are a factor. Pan's environmental bureau is weak and easily dominated by muscular economic ministries with bigger budgets and more clout. And the salaries of its local representatives are paid by the pro-growth governments they're supposed to be regulating.

"Many in government worry about instability if economic growth is not very fast," said Daniel C. Esty, head of Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy. "But I think instability is a far greater threat from people who find they're being poisoned by the environment."

A government study released in mid-July found that 81% of the nation's chemical plants were dangerously near population centers and sources of drinking water. Aware of the problem and the fury it engenders, Beijing recently promised to spend $175 billion on environmental protection over the next five years.

There are small signs of change. A few groups have started challenging polluters in court, with modest success.

"We're winning more cases," said Xu Kezhu, deputy director of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, which helps farmers file environmental lawsuits. "But it's not easy."

Villagers here say they originally cooperated with the government. The first chemical factories, which sprang up around 2001, were welcomed as a source of jobs and economic growth. That view started to change, however, as stillbirths increased and more children were born with deformed limbs or with learning disabilities.

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