A community blighted by pollution
In a ward at the People's No 2 Hospital in Shifang , 37-year-old peasant Yin Yanjun told a student 21 years his junior: 'I'm sure you guys have never experienced a real blue sky in Shifang .'
Yin suffered serious injuries to his legs when a stun grenade exploded next to him during a protest on July 3 against a planned heavy-metal processing plant. The student was beaten by more than 10 riot policemen.
'Only those of us in our 30s have had the luck to see really blue skies and white clouds above our homeland during childhood,' Yin said. 'At that time, the water in the brooks was so clean and clear that plenty of fish and prawns swam in it and children could cup their hands and drink it.'
However, things have changed drastically over the past couple of decades, as chemical plants have cropped up like bamboo shoots after spring rain.
Concern that the situation could get even worse if the planned multi-billion-yuan molybdenum-copper alloy plant was allowed to go ahead prompted three days of mass protests in Shifang at the start of this month. Clashes between hundreds of riot police and thousands of demonstrators left dozens wounded.
Driving along the dyke of the Shiting River in the town on Shuangsheng in Shifang last week, the stench from dozens of nearby factories was constant. Their output ranges from yellow phosphorus and phosphate to sulfate and formic acid, with a few cement plants adding dust to the noxious mix.
About one kilometre from the river is the village of Bailong , known as 'cancer village' in Shifang.
Liao Shuhong , a 32-year-old mother of two in Bailong, echoed Yin's remarks. She said that when she was a teenager there were still many fish, including rice-field eels and loaches, in the river, but they could no longer be found. She also said that nowadays, the wheat, rice and vegetables that villagers plant often wither before they are ready to harvest.
Wang Guanquan , a 64-year-old farmer, added that nobody in Shifang would buy rice, wheat, vegetables or peanuts grown in Shuangsheng because of its notoriety as a pollution black spot. As a result, most local residents are forced to eat the products themselves, while trying to sell the rest by claiming it was grown elsewhere.
Liao said many local residents worried that their lives would be cut short by their long-term consumption of tainted agricultural produce.
'To be honest, we all worry about the food we eat, especially since more than 10 people in our brigade of no more than 400 have died of various kinds of cancer since the chemical plants began operating,' she said. 'That's why throngs of Shuangsheng residents joined the protests on July 2 and the following day.'
Villagers also complain that the smells coming from the chemical plants can be intolerable.
'It is so smelly that we have to hold our noses whenever the wind blows from that direction,' said 60-year-old Li Jieying .
'The planned construction of a new heavy-metal factory on our land made us even angrier. Just like a candle guttering in the wind, I'm a woman in my 60s. I don't really care what will happen to me, but we ought to help our descendants find a way out.
'Those who are better off can simply move away ... But the rest of us have no money to build another house elsewhere and, therefore, no choice but to stay put. I earnestly hope the authorities will pity those of us who are poverty-stricken and stop [more] chemical plants.'
Villagers say that up to two-thirds of Bailong's residents have moved away in the past two or three years, some leaving Shifang altogether.
But some say that Shifang is still a good place to live. A middle-aged woman, who lives in the centre of the county-level city, said: 'Shifang is undoubtedly a tiny place, but in my eyes, it is an ideal place to live because it suffers neither drought nor flooding, and is not too cold in winter or too hot in summer. I love my land dearly. I will remain here unless it becomes too polluted.'