Don't let children pay the price for development

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 August, 2009, 12:00am

China's economic miracle has brought incalculable benefits to hundreds of millions of people - not simply by alleviating poverty but by helping build a foundation for a better future. The price of such supercharged growth - industrial pollution and environmental degradation, among others - is sometimes discounted as the inevitable cost of development. Certainly, other nations have gone through similar periods and it might be unreasonable to expect China to be an exception. But the latest pollution scandal, involving the lead poisoning of hundreds of young children and some adults in several villages next to a lead and zinc smelting plant in Shaanxi's Fengxiang county, should give pause to even the most diehard believer in untrammelled economic expansion.

As tragic as it is, the case is only the tip of the iceberg. Just this month, a string of toxic chemical poisoning cases has been reported in villages across Hunan . In Shuangqiao and neighbouring villagers in the Zhentou township in Liuyang , cadmium poisoning has killed at least five people and poisoned hundreds more. In Wenping township, state media say 70 per cent of nearly 2,000 children in four villages have been poisoned by a manganese smelter which illegally processed heavy metals.

What is depressing is that these stories - and countless others - follow a similar script. Rising commodity prices attract investors to heavy industry. Operators open a heavy-metal processing plant, contribute much from their profits to the local economy and probably buy off indigenous officials and regulators. As a result, they are able to operate with impunity for years. By the time their handiwork is exposed and corrupt officials detained, hundreds of victims have already been poisoned or otherwise harmed. Attempts by victims and their families to seek redress are often ruthlessly suppressed by local authorities, while the central government offers comforting words but inadequate compensation.

Pollution and poisoning have become a major source of friction and protest against authorities on the mainland. What is unusual about Zhentou is that villagers have been able to attract national attention through protests, petitions and media exposure. Their success, if it can be called that, is being imitated by victims in similar poisoning cases. On the mainland today, operators often ignore safety standards as long as they have protection from local officials. It is, therefore, necessary to break the stranglehold of local officialism. There also needs to be industrial consolidation. Major industrial players should welcome tougher regulation and enforcement because they raise standards, increase entry barriers for newcomers, restrain competition, and stabilise markets and income.

Regulators must be able to enforce the law and consumers must have a good chance of obtaining results from their complaints. Reporting channels, including those offered by the media and non-governmental organisations, should be promoted. Victims need to be adequately compensated.

All these scandals have heartbreaking consequences. They are, however, part of the growing pain of many developing economies. As we learn from history, the economic incentives that create the problems must also be part of the solution. There is no doubt improvement will eventually come as China achieves developed status, but Beijing should act to bring it about immediately. China's children cannot pay the price of building the nation's future.