TOPICS > Science

China’s Economic Progress Comes with Environmental Costs

January 23, 2007 at 5:45 PM EDT

LINDSEY HILSUM, ITV News Correspondent: Scarcely a pastoral scene, coke smelters and steel plants where there used to be grazing lands. The government environmental watchdog in Beijing has told the Tangshan local authorities to stop building, but new factories are going up all the time.

The people are getting desperate. Their crops die, they say. And in this community of 3,000, 70 people, including many under 40, have had strokes. Medical studies show a correlation between stroke and air pollution.

Wei Wen Zheng was 37 when he suddenly blacked out while driving his taxi. Seven years on, he can manage a few household chores, provided he takes it slowly. He can’t work, so his wife has to provide for the two children. His brother has also had a stroke.

WEI WEN ZHENG, Chinese Citizen (through translator): We drink the water that’s polluted by the factory. There are test reports on that water. Also, whenever we work in the field outside of the factory, we come home covered in coal dust.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The factories dump their garbage out in the open. Lee Suo Jiao showed us around. He’s turned from farmer into campaigner, filing endless reports and petitions, but to no avail.

Environmental inspectors came from Beijing, he said, but went away and did nothing. Factory owners frequently bribe local officials or go into business with them.

Whatever environmental directives come down from Beijing, it seems that here in Tangshan they take no notice. Local officials carry on approving factories, even though they’ve been told specifically that they may not build anymore.

And as for those who are sick, apparently because of the pollution caused by those factories, they’re just seen as necessary sacrifices, the unfortunate casualties of progress.

The government and the environment

LINDSEY HILSUM: The 2006 Green China Championships, a TV extravaganza sponsored by the state environmental protection agency and introduced by three tenors singing, "I dream of a green China. We will build a paradise on the debris," segueing into images of an idealized ancient China, pure in nature.

The government is using events like this to try to spread the environmental message and make it popular. One of the awards went to a well-known campaigner on water pollution.

But the no message doesn't seem to have reached the village of Xiditou, where paints and chemical factories discharge effluent directly into the river Yongding. Some of the worst polluters have closed, but villages say others just hide their waste pipes underground.

Mr. Zhao works as mechanic. He never earns enough to pay off the medical bills he incurred after his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Official figures say the cancer rate in Xiditou is 30 times the national average.

Filming discreetly, we went looking for the village chief who owns the Hong Gua paint factory, but he wasn't there. So we tried the party and government headquarters.

The chief said he needed permission from the propaganda secretary. Other officials gathered. A new central government edict says the local official should talk to visiting journalists, but the village chief retreated to the corridor. He took a little persuading from his colleagues.

As he pinned on the microphone, someone said, "You're famous now." "Yes," he said. "So was Saddam Hussein."

Official cancer figures didn't impress him.

BIAN SHAO DONG, Village Chief, Xiditou (through translator): The fact that people get sick has nothing to do with the environment. People get cancer in other places, too. How do you explain that, right?

Those cancer rates are impossible anyway. I don't know how they get those figures. The water isn't unsafe. We all grew up with it. Look how well I am.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Across China, villages are becoming aware of new environmental laws, but they're usually too poor and powerless to stand up to local officials. Party carters and chiefs may give occasional interviews now, but no one's really calling them to account.

The government in Beijing says it's serious about improving the environment, but those whose health has been destroyed have yet to see the proof.