Even though local officials blamed it on nature, something didn't look or smell natural about the blue-green algae that covered Lake Tai for a week last month. Yesterday, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered a formal probe into the event that ruined one of China's largest lakes last month, turning the water putrid and cutting off water for 2 million residents of the lakeside city of Wuxi. The culprits: an unusually dry spring coupled with the untreated waste spewed into the lake by nearby factories. State media reported that five officials have been fired or otherwise punished for failing to stem such pollution, while the local government has been ordered to close hundreds of nearby factories by the end of the month. The outbreak, Wen said, "has sounded the alarm for us."
In China, such alarms, which raise the awareness of public and government alike, are the silver (or, to be more precise, green) linings to the dark clouds of pollution that linger over the country like smog over Linfen. But this is not the first alarm, or the last. China's current official environmental craze, written into its 11th Five Year Plan, arguably began two years ago with the notorious 2005 Songhua River disaster. Even as a chemical factory explosion resulted in an 80 km slick of toxic chemicals, threatening water supplies for millions in China and Russia, the government only announced the severe pollution ten days after the incident, after repeated denials from officials that there had been any major environmental impact. In the years since, the State Environmental Protection Agency has ramped up efforts to fine and shut down polluters, carefully study and publicize water quality, and even call upon citizens and media to join in the fight against polluters.
Yet in landscapes as conflicted over the environment, beholden to private developers and wary of citizen action as China's myriad local governments are, years of campaigning against polluting factories can still land you in jail. Despite Premier Wen's complaint that "the problem has never been tackled at the root," the government is still detaining salesman-turned-environmentalist Wu Yilong, who was arrested in April on extortion charges that friends and family say were concocted to punish him for exposing local government inaction. (Wu, who collected these disconcerting, rainbow-colored samples from Chinese lakes, had been named one of China's top ten environmentalists in 2005.)
Ironies aside, arresting activists is so old fashioned. China's officials will need to think of something better, given the thousands of protests over pollution a year, improved citizen communication, and environmental disasters that resist any form of cover-up (China's rural cancer rate rose by 23 percent in the past two years, and more than 70 percent of the country's waterways and 90 percent of its underground water are contaminated by pollution). The protests in the port city of Xiamen two weeks ago highlighted China's growing people power, an undeniable force in the context of the government's dream of a "harmonious society" (is pollution doesn't frighten the government, rural unrest will).
China will need better rule of law to enhance the ability of citizens and NGOs to stop local polluters; it will need to crack down on corruption not only through serious fines to officials and companies but by better rules on transparency, and improved inspection and enforcement; and it needs to hear and help publicize through state media as many "alarms" as it can. Yes, China's governors are going to need to resort to something more than just silencing the voices of watchdog activists. They will need to actually amplify them.