Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Fire This Time...

In the past I've expounded in my half-educated, half-ignorant way on my belief that the connection of man to nature in traditional Chinese culture, the sense that man is not separate from nature but is inextricably bound to it, might be the foundation for a broad-based Chinese environmental movement, one that is sorely needed to repair the environmental devastation wrought by years of socialist "planning" (sorry, guys, but Communist countries in general have lousy track records in this area) and now unregulated robber-baron capitalism. But it turns out there are far more direct motivations. Like having your neighbors sickened and your farmlands poisoned by polluting factories. The experience of Xinchang, a village about 180 miles south of Shanghai, is sadly typical, a part of a rising trend of social unrest in an increasingly restive population that is no longer willing to meekly endure the outrages committed by unresponsive at best and flagrantly corrupt at worst local authorities:
In Xinchang, as with many of the recent protests, the initial spark involved claims of serious environmental degradation. An explosion at the Jingxin Pharmaceutical Company this month in a vessel containing deadly chemicals reportedly killed one worker, and previous leakages contaminated the water supply for miles downstream, said villagers and one chemical plant worker who was injured in the accident.

Villagers say they appointed a small group of representatives to present demands for compensation, including free health examinations and medical care for people who live near the plants, which produces a strain of antibiotics called quinolones.

When they sent a group on July 4 to demand an audience with factory officials, they say, security guards beat the representatives.

The next day, the villagers returned in larger numbers and managed to grab a security officer, whom they acknowledge beating. In the meantime, as word spread of the beating of the village representatives and of the worker's death in the explosion, villagers raised the stakes, demanding the outright closing of the factory, which they had complained about for years.

"Our fields won't produce grain anymore," said a 46-year-old woman who lives near the plant. "We don't dare to eat food grown from anywhere near here."

Her husband, a former machine operator, said he had to quit working recently because of persistent weakness and nausea. When local officials posted a notice saying they would reopen the plant a few days after the fatal explosion there, he had been one of the first demonstrators to arrive on the scene, charging the gates and bursting into the factory with a small crowd of fellow protesters.

"They are making poisonous chemicals for foreigners that the foreigners don't dare produce in their own countries," the man said. Explaining why he had been willing to rush into the plant, despite signs warning of toxic chemicals all about, he said, "It is better to die now, forcing them out, than to die of a slow suicide."
The Xinchang protesters were inspired and emboldened by the relative success of the protests and riots in neighboring Dongyang, where residents successfully closed down a polluting pesticide plant:
Despite tight controls on news coverage of the incident, the riot in Dongyang, where the chemical factory remains closed months later, has firmly entered Chinese folklore as proof that determined citizens acting en masse can force the authorities to reverse course and address their needs.

"As for the Dongyang riot, everyone knows about it," a man in his 20's exulted. "Six policemen were killed, and the chief had the tendons in his arms and legs severed. Perhaps they went too far, but we must be treated as human beings."
As Mao once said, a single spark can light a prairie fire...

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