The benefits of capitalism, but at an unbearable cost

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 August, 2009, 12:00am

Unrestrained capitalism can be dangerous. In late-19th-century America, it resulted in contaminated foodstuffs, faulty consumer goods and pollution. If that sounds familiar, it is because an echo is to be found on the mainland today, with tainted-food scandals, hazardous consumer goods and environmental degradation.

The industrial poisoning in Hunan province, which this newspaper reports on today, is a striking example of the terrible toll pollution can take on people's lives. Five people have died and many more have been made ill by cadmium and indium poisoning, caused by effluent from a chemical factory. It is a terrible tragedy that should never have been allowed to happen.

Officials in Zhentou township, in Liuyang city, admit that more than 500 people have suffered potentially fatal poisoning after the plant discharged untreated waste into farmland soil for several years. But many more among a local population of 12,000 have health problems and more still have been exposed to danger. Villagers say that despite six detentions during a protest on Wednesday, they plan another on Tuesday if the authorities do not do more to help them. They say only one in four has been given a health check and only 60 have received free medical treatment. Daily compensation payments of up to 12 yuan (HK$13.60) are due to end on Tuesday. Even if continued, that is of little solace to people who cannot farm their polluted land and may not be well enough to get a job, or live a normal life. More must be done for them.

Villagers say local government officials offered large sums of money to bereaved families to cover up the scandal. If true, this would call to mind an attempted cover-up of severe pollution of the Songhua River in 2005 after a chemical-factory explosion in Jilin province . Downstream in Harbin , officials who cut off the contaminated water supply claimed they were only doing it for maintenance work. Sadly, such incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. The mainland has many small factories similar to the one in Zhentou. The pursuit of wealth, the drive for development and the failings of local officials often combine to make life a misery for people living in the vicinity. Many officials still see environmental protection as an inconvenient obstacle to economic growth.

That said, the central government has made it clear it expects local cadres to strike a better balance between growth and sustainable development, cutting waste and reducing pollution. But the Zhentou scandal drives home the need for action to see that what happens on the ground reflects the central government's policy. As development spreads, the siting of factories has become a volatile issue, with the new urban middle class adding clout to protests.

The tragic consequences of the contamination of Zhentou's environment emerged only recently. The chemical plant has now closed, and many details of this affair remain unknown. Why was the factory built just metres away from houses and farmland? What environmental checks were carried out on its operations? How was it able to release such dangerous chemicals into the environment?

That calls for a full inquiry. The central government must find out how this occurred and take steps to ensure that a similar tragedy cannot happen again. Those responsible must be caught and punished. The suspension of an environmental official and his deputy is a start. But there is also a need to monitor the building and operation of chemical factories better, especially when they are so close to human habitation. Then, perhaps, the economic benefits of capitalism need not come at an unbearable cost.