Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Chemicals at any price?

In the wake of the Tonghua Iron and Steel Group labor dispute/murder case, another horrific story emerges from China's hinterland. According to the South China Morning Post, at least five people are dead and more than 500 sick as a result of cadmium poisoning from toxic waste freely released by Xianghe Chemical, a plant in Liuyang city, Hunan province. Employees of the plant, which has been closed, told the SCMP a familiar story of officials from the environmental protection bureau who came to "drink tea" but never saw the production line. On the one hand, you have to give China credit for at least meting out punishment: the director of the environmental protection bureau has been fired, and the deputy mayor arrested. But on the other hand, this is neither an isolated event in China nor new to this area - the previous director of environmental protection was arrested on suspicion of bribery. On the one hand, the China Daily's coverage and Xinhua's commentary have been more frank about problems with local governance; but on the other hand, this is not about "emergencies" or "incidents" - this is about a systematic, nation-wide pattern that, if unaddressed, will threaten the very stability it seeks to preserve. China's government and others rightly cite the fact that other nations polluted their way to industrialization. What they don't mention is that it was only bitter protests, followed by laws and policies considered radical at the time that finally put pressure on local officials to change.