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Poisoned children test China

Central planners have resolved to clean up the country’s heavy industries, but they don’t always get what they want, writes Patti Waldmeir. In the provinces, local officials often have another agenda.

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Xiao Wang is a toddler, trapped in the body of an octogenarian. His lungs fight for breath, his eyelids droop and his head nods in listless slumber, his blood poisoned by lead and his tiny body weakened by pollution and poverty.

Sitting in the arms of his grandfather in a fly-blown courtyard, up the hill from a lead-emitting manganese smelter in China’s rural Hunan province, little Wang is both a tragic victim of the “dirty development” that has made China great and, if Beijing has its way, a poster child for the promise of a cleaner, greener China.

Xiao Wang’s village of Hengjiang, a settlement of 1,800 mostly elderly people left behind to grow rice or mine alluvial coal, while younger villagers migrate to better jobs in richer cities, has emerged as a test case of Beijing’s resolve to clean up the Chinese mining and minerals industries.

In August, state media publicised anti-lead protests in Hengjiang and in Shaanxi province, a big lead-producing area, prompting the government to shut down enough lead smelters to cause a sharp jump in the world price for the commodity.

Is Beijing just reacting to short-term pressure? Or is China finally getting serious about cleaning up its environment and the health of its 1.3 billion people?

Beijing has repeatedly said it wants heavy industry to consolidate, eliminating smaller producers that create the most pollution and use the most energy.

But what central planners in Beijing want is not always what they get. Provincial and local government officials often have their own agenda: they need tax revenues, growth, jobs (and the odd kickback), all of which may be jeopardised in the short term by greener development.

The manganese smelter at Hengjiang is a case in point. Officials at Wugang, the nearest town, say they did not know the smelter existed. But the inhabitants of Hengjiang could hardly miss the factory, with its heavy black and green smoke that made them feel dizzy and stopped their children from eating.

Village residents staged three protests before they persuaded the Wugang government to shut the plant, which emitted lead as a residue of processing.

Still amateurs at the art of managing public opinion, the local government agreed to test Hengjiang children for lead, including those at a kindergarten within a stone’s throw of the plant. They also decided to pay 150 yuan (US$22) a month compensation for three months to those with the highest levels.

Officials declared the soil and water safe, treated 17 children in hospital and released them. Then they declared the problem solved. They told the Financial Times in September that no children were showing serious signs of industrial lead poisoning, instead blaming the children’s elevated lead levels on petrol residue or even on pencils.

Wugang officials promise that the manganese facility -- opened illegally by a top communist party official -- will remain closed and that other mining establishments in the area will re-open only after they pass environmental tests.

Hengjiang residents are not satisfied. They say the children remain feverish, listless and without appetite. But officials at the Wugang government and at the hospital in Changsha where the children were treated insist their fevers have nothing to do with lead. “Maybe it’s H1N1 from England,” a Wugang official says, referring to the swine-flu virus.

At a kindergarten, the headmistress dismisses the villagers’ worries as peasant ignorance, saying “they think even the trees and the walls are polluted”. She says her school is losing pupils, and the village has lost residents.

Still, many environmentalists believe Beijing is serious about transforming its growth-at-any-price paradigm into a greener, healthier, more environmentally efficient vision of the future -- and even the market appears persuaded.

Macquarie Bank estimates that 200,000 to 300,000 tonnes a year of lead capacity has been taken out of production because of the crisis. Although new lead capacity of three million tonnes will be added annually in the medium term, 80% of it will be significantly cleaner and greener.

But the challenge is huge. Local governments seldom have the funds or the incentives to keep dirty plants closed or monitor greener ones for compliance.

Some metals analysts think dirty smelters will just reopen as soon as the media attention dies down, but others believe this year could prove a turning point.

“Compared with the past, villagers can now get information from the media and they are not that easily cheated,” says Feng Juncong of state-owned Antaike metals consultancy.

But it is still far from clear that this year’s crisis will improve the lives of the Xiao Wangs yet to be born rather than prove to be just another illustration of the dark side of Chinese development.

Additional reporting by Javier Blas in London

www.ft.com/home/uk

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009.


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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

表面光鲜的背后

这反映了目前中国产业结构存在的巨大问题,很大程度上,我们是靠着高耗能、高污染的工业支撑着8%的GDP增长率,表面光鲜的背后是无数的民众健康受损的黑色案例,大好形势的赞扬之辞掩盖了广大受害者的痛苦呻吟。
在地方上,各级政府官员眼中只有上级领导下达的增长指标,对底层民众的诉求视而不见。很多时候,中央出台的政策,本意是惠民、利民的,但等到基层执行时这些政策已经扭曲得不成模样了。

Behind the bright facade

This reflects the enormous problems that exist in China’s current industrial structure. To a large extent, we rely on high levels of waste and pollution in our industries to support the 8% GDP growth rate. Behind the bright facade are countless cases of people with deteriorating health. The refined language that approves of the good circumstances hides a vast number of victims who are moaning in pain. In every place, the government employees at every level are only concerned with the growth targets transmitted down by the upper levels of government. They turn a blind eye to the demands of the lowest levels of the masses. In many cases when the central government introduces a policy, it is originally intended to benefit the masses, but once it is time to implement the policy at the local level, it is so distorted that it doesn’t even resemble the original policy. (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

无语

又看到这样的中毒事件,我都不想再说话了,太多太多的孩子,本来可以拥有一个很好的童年回忆,现在却过早的为病痛所困。对于这些孩子以及他们的父母而言,美好的人生希望早已化为了对未来的绝望。

Silent

After seeing another one of these poisoning incidents, I really have nothing to say; there are far too many children affected. In the past, we could have very good childhood memories, but now we are troubled prematurely by sickness. As for these children and their parents, their hopes for a good life have already changed into a future of hopelessness. (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

小可为美

相比刺激大型企业在不断扩大的市场中进行投机行为,政府提供条件,利用中小矿产加工企业的有效的污染控制技术则显得更聪明。鼓励发展大型企业势必导致垄断(并产生更多回扣)。

对于中国工程师来说,降低成本,利用适当污染控制技术是重要的商业契机。这不仅适用于中国,对世界各国都一样。

在中国,造纸工业就是个很好的例子。大部分地方上的小纸浆厂已经被关闭(表面是由于污染问题),工人失业。与此同时,新厂的数目和规模却又不断扩大,不仅超出中国的需求,而且导致大量农民的土地转而种植纸浆生产所需的木材。比起种庄稼这些运作需要大量的水、能源及更多的化肥,还可能降低小农依靠土地为生的能力。

Can small be beautiful?

Surely it is better for government to subsidise provision and use of appropriate pollution control technology by small- and medium-scale mineral processing enterprises than to give incentives to large scale industry to speculate on an ever expanding market.

The latter would of course tend to concentrate power (and provide the odd kickback).

There is a major business opportunity for China's engineers to develop low cost, appropriate technoloiges for pollution control - worldwide, not just in China.

China's paper industry is a case in point. Most small, locally-owned pulp mills have been closed (ostensibly due to their pollution) and their labour forces have lost their livelihood.

In contrast, the number and scale of new mills now not only exceeds China's demand but is driving policies which promote the conversion of smallholders' land to pulpwood plantations. These tend to require much more water, energy and fertiliser than the former land use. They might also reduce the ability of the small holders to earn a living from their land.