The Economist | Aug 10th 2010 | 11:11
HONG KONG’s South China Morning Post has an interesting account [behind a paywall] of how environmental damage, including a frenzy of dam-building, may have exacerbated the landslides in Gansu province that have killed hundreds of people. The same has even been suggested in the China Economic Times [in Chinese], a proper part of China’s state-owned press. The part of Gansu struck by the landslides, Zhouqu county, is in China’s poor and remote west. Criticism of environmental malpractice there is less likely to hurt the reputations of the country’s most powerful politicians—less likely than would, say, a similar report about one of the far wealthier regions in the east. It is perhaps out of an abundance of caution about such sensitivities that China’s media have been so reticent in their reporting about the latest algal bloom in Tai Lake. This immense body of water straddles two of China’s richest provinces, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Since a huge outbreak of algae in 2007, the leadership in Beijing has made a considerable fuss about cleaning it up. To admit failure would be embarrassing, especially so while nearby Shanghai plays host to the World Expo, with its theme of eco-friendly cities.
This leaves the task of whistleblowing to a handful of determined activists. Tai Lake’s best-known independent monitor is Wu Lihong, a 42-year-old former salesman who lives in a village surrounded by paddy fields, close to the lake’s northern shore. Mr Wu was released from prison in April after having served a three-year term for blackmail. He believes that local officials fabricated the case against him in order to force his silence. Mr Wu says he was kept in a cell with two mentally ill prisoners, treated roughly throughout and that, when his wife was allowed to visit him, they were restricted to discussing family matters (and only in Mandarin, not the local dialect—presumably to aid their Mandarin-speaking eavesdroppers). But Mr Wu’s wife, Xu Jiehua, says he is regarded as a hero in their local community. Firecrackers were set off in the village to celebrate his return. A photograph of Mr Wu standing outside the prison on the day of his release shows him clutching a big bouquet of flowers. Ms Xu notes with a smile that it was not she, but a local well-wisher, who gave them.
The walls of their sitting room are adorned with reminders of better times: photographs of Mr Wu rubbing shoulders with senior officials in Beijing in 2005, when he was declared one of the country’s top 10 environmentalists; an environmental-award certificate given by the Ford Motor company in 2006. There is also evidence of why the authorities turned sour on him. Mr Wu takes down three scrolls of calligraphy to show their reverse sides. They reveal a collection of 300-odd receipts from the post office, each one representing a registered letter. These were the letters Mr Wu sent to leaders in Beijing concerning pollution in Tai Lake. He received no replies, but kept each one of the receipts, hidden on the backs of the scrolls. He wanted to keep the police from seizing this tangible proof that at least he had tried.
As we reported in 2008, a detachment of plain-clothes security officers were assigned to watch Mr Wu and Ms Xu’s house round-the-clock while he was in prison. They did not try to ward off foreign reporters, but it was clear that their presence was aimed at discouraging all but the most determined outsiders who might visit. The goons have gone, at last. The surveillance however has not stopped, or so Mr Wu believes. He points to the single-lane road that cuts through the paddy fields. Something that looks like a traffic-control camera has been erected at each of three crossing-points along the road. There is barely any traffic to control; such cameras are not to be seen elsewhere on these narrowest of country lanes.
Mr Wu is still a bit nervous. He took me to the lake to see a patch of noxious-smelling algae, but then fretted about attracting the attention of a nearby contingent of men who had been detailed to scoop the algae out. “It’s dangerous here,” he cautioned, referring to the men—not the poisonous blue-green scum. A little inland he introduced the owner of a fruit-tree orchard whom, Mr Wu said, had been warned by officials not to complain about pollution to journalists. Sure enough, he didn’t. But Mr Wu shows little reticence when it comes to blaming officialdom high and low, and even the Communist Party itself, for having robbed the lake of the beauty for which it was once renowned. He took me to see a village near his home, which he says local officials smartened up with new houses in order to impress the high-level dignitaries who come to inspect pollution-control measures. “The local government is cheating central-government officials and attacking the local masses”, he said. “Tai Lake is even more polluted than before and no one pays attention.”