Climate change

Time to 'clean up' environment report

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2011, 12:00am

It has become a yearly ritual for the mainland authorities to mark World Environment Day on June 5 with a 'State of the Environment' report. But the annual report, which is supposed to track the health of the country's environment and offer an in-depth analysis of trends in environmental protection, has come under growing attack in recent years.

Instead of truthfully documenting existing environmental woes, critics said the reports were largely evasive and misleading, deliberately glossing over the appalling environmental cost of China's economic success. The reports avoided critical issues - including who should be held responsible for worsening degradation, and stopped short of offering concrete solutions.

Although top environmental officials routinely admit that widespread degradation has yet to be brought under control despite the much-touted progress, they insisted that environmental damage was largely unavoidable, given that China was still in the early stages of industrialisation and economic development. But environmentalists said the 'grow first and clean up later' argument was merely an excuse to cover up the true extent of the environmental challenges that confront the world's top carbon polluter, and a way to dodge the government's responsibility for the environmental havoc being caused.

Many experts also said that China's spiralling environmental problems could run out of control if the government did not change its mindset on tackling rampant pollution problems. Despite years of calls for public participation and greater transparency, the mainland authorities usually insisted on a top-down approach when making environmentally-sensitive decisions and in dealing with subsequent pollution disputes.

Leading mainland environmental experts, such as Ma Jun and Wang Canfa , have bluntly said that Beijing's campaign to clean up pollution would not succeed until the public are fully involved and their opinions properly heeded.

Recent trips to several pollution-plagued villages in Hunanprovince have highlighted the downsides of such a hierarchical, non-participatory mentality. When I tried to talk to residents in Hengyang's Sanyuan village, along the middle reaches of the Xiang River, who have suffered chronically from chemical pollution discharged from nearby factories, they appeared deeply worried and reluctant at first.

The usual response from many disgruntled villagers was: 'What's the good of talking to you? Can you save us from our misery and solve our problems?'

The village, located in Hunan's industrial hub and renowned mining centre, has been hit hard by an outbreak of cancer, with at least 20 people dying over the past decade, mostly in their 40s and 50s. But when I asked locals to describe what it was like to live just a few hundred metres from the smokestacks of one of the country's largest lead and zinc smelters, Shuikoushan Nonferrous Metals, their mood turned emotional and could not wait to tell of their suffering and vent their frustrations.

Later they told me they had been kept in the dark for years about the severe pollution, and the local authorities had turned a deaf ear to their grievances and repeated complaints. 'Frankly, we are completely disappointed and a little frightened because local cadres have always tried to protect the polluting factories and threatened to take us into custody after we made several attempts to protest over five years ago,' said Li Sherong, a Sanyuan villager whose husband and two other relatives died of cancer. Li was also diagnosed with uterine cancer nearly three years ago.

Similar complaints about local governments and local protectionism are not uncommon in many other places hit by pollution scandals.

Environmental disputes have become a main source of protests and unrest on the mainland in recent years, due to the fact that the public has yet to be given a voice in decision-making and crisis management, analysts said.

Pollution victims insisted they had no intention of seeking confrontation, but that local governments' habitual ignorance of their plight and collusion with polluters have left them with few other options. 'We did nothing wrong and it is not fair for us to live in pollution misery,' said Luo Jinzhi, from Shuangqiao village in Liuyang , Hunan, which had been hit by one of the worst metal pollution scandals on the mainland two years ago. Thousands of people were affected then and as many as 20 people are believed to have been killed by cadmium poisoning.

Luo is one of the Shuangqiao villagers who tried to petition the central government in Beijing after local authorities in Hunan took action to quell their protests amid controversies over compensation and the cleaning up of the metal pollution. Her defiance and activism have apparently embarrassed local officials, who subsequently tried to silence her by putting her in police custody for 10 days. 'I will not give up my effort of seeking justice for me and my fellow villagers,' she said. 'Why can't the government have some trust in our villagers and openly discuss with us about how to deal with the aftermath [of the pollution scandal]?'