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Causing a stink in Shanghai (1)

A multinational leather company in eastern China has been breaching pollution standards and troubling locals with a pungent stench. Xu Shuda investigates.

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Fifty-six-year-old Feng Min had never smelt anything like it. “It’s like pitch mixed with cat’s urine,” she says, standing at the gate to the Jufengyuan neighbourhood on Shanghai’s Shangda Road. Looking to the south-east, she wrinkles her brow. Two kilometres away is the Richina Leather factory.

The company was founded in 1995, with total investment of US$29.9 million (204.2 million yuan). The Richina Group originally held a 55% stake but has since increased its ownership interest to 95%. The facility, which supplies tanned leather to some of the world's largest shoe, clothing, furnishing and automobile brands, is the largest in east and south-east Asia and Richina's leathers are the raw material for everything from Clark's shoes to Toyota's luxury leather seats. The company's website boasts a client list including Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Ugg, Nike and Rockport.

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) and chinadialogue author, says that, of the tens of thousands of companies his institute monitors, Richina is the only one to have been investigated and sanctioned by environmental authorities every year since 2004.

The Jufengyuan neighbourhood lies in the north-east of Shanghai, where Shangda Road and Qilian Road meet, and is the largest residential complex near Shanghai University. In Shanghai, properties in this type of area normally cost at least 15,000 yuan (US$2,197) per square metre. But in Jufengyuan, a 170-square-metre apartment can be had for as little as 1.8 million yuan (US$264,000). Local estate agents always make a point of mentioning the “super-low” prices.

Right next door to Richina Leather is the village of Beizhang. The acrid odour from the numerous local tanneries, several of which are owned by the Richina Group, is apparent even at some distance from the village, on Nanda Road. As you get closer, your eyes become dry, your nose itches and breathing becomes a little difficult.

“It’s been so long we can’t smell it any more,” says 38-year-old villager Zhang Zhidong helplessly. Since the 1970s, the village has been surrounded by leather workshops, which have polluted the ground. Zhang explains that a powerful reek of rotten eggs has hung over the village since 1996, when the Richina plant started operating: “As soon as one of the workers from the plant rides his bike into the courtyard, the whole house stinks of rotten eggs.”

Richina was sanctioned annually from 2004 to 2008, the last year for which data is published, according to information on environmental-law enforcement from Shanghai municipal authorities and the Baoshan Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB). In 2008 alone, the firm was prosecuted for turning off air-treatment equipment and fined 100,000 yuan (US$14,635) for violating standards on the release of atmospheric pollutants. When I phone the Baoshan EPB to ask for monitoring results for 2009, the official at the other end of the phone checks with a colleague at the monitoring station before calling back to say “They were definitely still breaching standards.”

Zhou Qichao, a resident of Jufengyuan and former engineer at Shanghai’s 4th Pharmaceutical Factory, explains that Richina first soaks the leather and scrapes off remaining flesh and fat, then removes oil and hair before two tanning stages. During this process, the fat and proteins produce fetid odours as they are dissolved in water, just like organic matter rotting in a stream. Richina claims to use a spraying technique to absorb the odour but this is inadequate as the process must be repeated many times to be effective. “They won’t use that much water – it’s too expensive and would increase their costs,” says Zhou.

Baoshan Environmental Protection Bureau’s punishment of Richina in October 2008 backs up Zhou Qichao’s claim as the plant wasn’t using water at all. The bureau’s record of the event refers to: “Air pollution treatment equipment lying idle while waste gases are expelled untreated.”

Opposition from local residents dates back as far as the offensive odours. Feng Min says many letters have been written to the Shanghai authorities requesting relocation of the plant and residents have established a monitoring group to collect evidence of the pollution at their own expense. Local farmers from the village of Beizhang have also complained to Richina on a number of occasions. In the last two years the problem has abated significantly. Xu Jun, a Richina worker living locally, confirms that the production line responsible for much of the pollution was shut down in 2008. Xu’s job is to dye or decorate semi-finished product, which will later be used to make leather car seats. “Those techniques don’t create any pollution,” he says.

“It’s the small plants around here that are the worst polluters now,” says Zhang Zhidong. He takes me for a walk around the Richina plant and there is no particularly strong smell. But there is an offensive reek that makes my chest tighten by the nearby Hongguang Leather and Leather Chemical Factory. There are many other leather firms in the area and the villagers accuse them of polluting on the sly.

But checking up on the ownership of these companies, I found that the firms the villagers accuse of making uncontrolled emissions – Shanghai Torch Shoes, Shangahi Leather Case & Bag Factory, Shanghai Leather Chemical Factory, Shanghai United Ball Enterprises, Shanghai Weixing Leather Products, Shanghai Yimin Tannery and Hongguang Leather – all became subsidiaries of the Richina Group back in 2004. And the three companies named in almost every letter from the environmental authorities to local residents – Shanghai Richina Leather, Shanghai Hongguang Leather and Shanghai Leather Chemical Factory – are also Richina Group subsidiaries.

On the afternoon of November 17, 2009, Richina Leather chief executive Bob Moore tells me that “Since arriving in Shanghai in March, I’ve never smelt this ‘stench’ you are talking about.” However, local residents recorded when they smelt that odour on an online forum. In August alone, the smell was present on eight days: August 11, 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 27 and 30.

Moore produces a record of odours near Jufengyuan in the two weeks from October 16. “It’s not even the smell of hydrogen sulphide – it’s mostly ammonia from chemical plants,” he says. “It’s nothing to do with Richina.” Moore says he has been working hard on environmental protection since arriving at Richina Leather. “From 2004 to 2008 we were punished every year because at the same time as we were making improvements, environmental standards were increasing. I’m sure 2009 will be different.” When I tell him that the Baoshan environmental authorities said Richina was still breaching standards in 2009, Moore gets a little angry: “Impossible! None of the authorities have spoken to us. If Baoshan Environmental Protection Bureau wants to put the figures on the table, we can discuss them.”

He believes that many small, local factories are causing pollution and people should not assume that every smell they encounter is coming from the Richina Leather facility. When reminded that many of those factories are actually owned by Richina Group, he does not deny it but says: “I am only the boss of Richina Leather Industries, responsible for Richina Leather. I can control pollution from Richina Leather but not those factories nearby.”

But Moore’s business card shows he is also president and chief executive of one of the Richina Group’s four major divisions, Richina Industries. On the Richina Group website, Richina Industries includes Shanghai Richina Leather and Shanghai Leather Company. And those nearby factories that he “can’t control” are all subsidiaries of the latter.

Xu Shuda is a reporter based in Shanghai.

NEXT: Ramping up the pressure on Richina

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Good Report

I hope that many more good articles like this will appear on China Dialogue, good in- depth articles which go deeply into life and things people can relate to!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


上海人民强烈要求把这些污染上海环境的企业搬出上海 !! 还上海一片蓝天 !!

give back a clear sky to Shanghai

People in Shanghai are demanding strongly that those polluting factories must be moved out of Shanghai. Give back a clear sky to Shanghai !

Translated by Anna(陈丽英)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






So then, whose blue sky should be snatched away?

Comment number two was a very excited remark, I'm convinced that this user is in Shanghai.

The problem is that if polluting industries move out of Shanghai, and give Shanghai back its blue sky, then wherever they move to will be deprived of its blue sky.

The crucial point is that these polluting industries need to be cleaned up, yet fines and power rationing surprisingly appear to have no effect. This means that the fines are not sufficient and that too much electricity is given, which will not act as a deterrent at all.

Is it ultimately these industries that don't give Shanghai its blue sky, or is it functional departments unwilling to lose out on money?

Translated by Matthew Bailey

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



What has Shanghai Municipal government done?

Has the government done anything effective in protecting the environment? What will the government do, given the fact that currently they do no more than just fining the companies. There is even no penalties on further internal-rectification. Should we look forward their actions or urge them to take further actions?

Translated by Anna(陈丽英)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




The bigger the enterprise the greater the reputational risk

As in the USA, genuinely foreign-owned enterprises (i.e. not those listed in Hong Kong or incoprated in British Overseas Territories) are likely to be blamed by the authorities

However, it is the authorities - implicitly the party - which are to blame.

It is unlikely that environmental abuse is the only source of China's competitive position in export markets. However, those markets will increasingly exclude products made in China if the supply of those products is suspected of being seriously polluting - particularly if manufacturers "contract out" the most polluting processes.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



What Exactly Is The Problem?

Following this incident, leather producers in Shanghai will eventually move the tanning stage of the production process away from Shanghai, leaving only those stages of processing which produce very little such pollution. Moreover, Yan Ciliang's Richina has also co-operated with Liaoning province to establish a larger leather production base at Fuxin. The problem is, before the government attracts investment and goes ahead with industrial transformation and revitalization, are the relevant laws, regulations, and processes perfect? Will they serve to ensure a normal life for people? If the answer is no, or not necessarily, won't we see another chapter in the history of black- hearted capitalists polluting the environment in the name of making a profit unfold before our very eyes again?!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


当那么多人在美国致力于一项不太可能的任务:改变人们的不利于环境的生活习惯,比如对汽车的依赖,对于single family和 suburban社区的情有独钟的时候,中国基于对高GDP经济的追求,完全不顾环境问题而进行对环境的任意破坏。



所以说民主在美国和中国的境遇全然的不同,但是以不同的方式干扰着环境问题的解决。对于美国环境问题的出路是基于媒体,ngo等不断的对环境危机正方双方的报道,以及学校教育使民众认识到从长远上看,放弃一些眼前的方便,更能造福子孙后代。 对于中国完全是看不到希望,高GDP作为执政合法性的路的尽头,是中国将成为地球上最大的一片近似火星的地方。

Democracy is caught in a dilemma both in China and US

When people in the US are dedicated to the improbable task:Changing citizens' habits which are disadvantageous to the environment,such as the dependence on automobile and the great passion on single-family dwelling as well as suburban community, China has arbitrarily destroyed the environment—regardless the exsiting environmental deterioration —merely in the pursuit of higher GDP.

The US' dilemma is that individual habits are protected by the constitutional law. The democracy determines that the government can not intervene people's options too much. Whether to ride a car or a bus is totally up to the individual's choice.Thus,the government can only provide advices,which often end with little success.

Quite different from the US, China's government has more power to step in the citizen's life, especially in today's Shanghai, people even have to register with their real name in order to buy a fruit knife. In defect of the strict election in accord with democratic process, the government can't use the conventional votes as legitimate basis,but choose the GDP as the mark of the ruling Legitimacy.Under this premise,the environment only has relationship with people's health.Since they have no votes,the health problem becomes unimportant, the best proof is that poisoned food spreads unchecked.

Therefore, the democracy encounters very different situations in the US and China, and interferes the resolvation of environmental issues in different ways. The hope of resolving the environmental issue in the US lies in the sense of righteousness of the media and NGOs, who reveal both sides of the environmental crisis. Besides, the education has raised the citizens' awareness. They realize that they should give up the mess of pottage to benefit their offsprings in the long run. While in China, there is not a ray of hope,if we continue to chase the GDP,our homeland might turn to be the widest barren which is just similar to the Mars.

Translated by Yaqing Liu

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




never treat china differently

Since the reform and opening up ,there is no denying that china has changed a lot.The whole world eye china as a superpower.They see china in a totally different way.But the main point is that China is still a developing country ,which means the standard for developed countries is not fitable here.
Eco-fridendly and human-friendly society is not the only thing for those ddeveloped countries,but for China also.The world brings their factories to china and takes away the products,leaving pollution,wastes here.Isn't fair or something?China has its own way to deal things.If foreign-owned enterprises just keep doning this,they will lose the biggest cake labelled "China" for good

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



If More Serious Environmental Policies Were To Be Enacted

I actually feel that it's not just international industry, and that local governments haven't enacted practical environmental policies with regard to domestic polluters either. Judging by an assessment of current Chinese local administrative achievements, at a time when they are facing the two difficult problems of developing the economy and protecting the environment, they only choose to sacrifice the environment. If we could impose more severe environmental policies on ourselves, we wouldn't have to point the finger at the special treatment recieved by international firms.