Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Clean as a Whistleblower

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Clean as a Whistleblower

Article excerpt

At the beginning of June, an ominous, if faintly absurd, tale appeared in China's state-owned Global Times newspaper. Buddhists in north-west Beijing had released thousands of live carp and turtles into the Beisha River--a ritual to honour Guanyin, the "goddess of mercy", often accompanied by prayers for longevity--but the fish and reptiles had promptly died en masse from pollution. The short news report described an "odorous river ... infested with flies and rotting fish". The city's water authorities, it added, had "blamed residents" for the disaster.

The next day, the ministry of environmental protection announced that rural pollution had continued to grow worse in 2012 as industry and mining expanded without adequate protections, even in the face of legislative efforts. "With industrialisation, urbanisation and the modernisation of agriculture, the situation for the rural environment has become grim," the ministry said in its annual report, in an admission that will have surprised few.

China's cities have been shaken by increasingly noisy and networked protests about environmental problems just as pollution of the countryside has intensified. In March, a former leading member of the Communist Party's committee of political and legislative affairs said that pollution had replaced land disputes as the leading catalyst for "mass incidents", or social unrest. "If you want to build a plant, and if the plant may cause cancer, how can people remain calm? …

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