By Dexter Roberts The 50-mile long slick of highly poisonous benzene and nitrobenzene clogging China's Songhua River finally cleared the city of Harbin on Nov. 27, and drinking water was turned back on for the far northeastern capital's almost four million residents. But China was hardly ready to breathe a sigh of relief. Indeed, this latest accident has only ratcheted up the level of fear across the country. As nervous local officials and oil industry executives who initially covered up the original plant explosion await word of their fate, China's citizens are engaged in a swirling debate about the frightening environmental problems plaguing their country.
The flurry of outraged newspaper reporting of the last week tells it all: "If individual leaders irresponsibly tell lies, this is an extremely terrible crime against society," wrote Beijing's China Economic Times, referring to the cover up in both Jilin City, home to the polluting factory, and by Harbin city officials.
Added Shanghai's Dongfang Morning Daily: "What we have seen is an extremely slow and slack information-response system. Harbin was caught off guard when faced with a crisis. The panic and chain reaction caused by the failure to make information public will do great harm to the government's credibility." The crisis "has sounded the alarm bell in an extreme fashion. It is time for us to face up to pollution," wrote Beijing's China Youth Daily.
"A GRIM SITUATION." While China's 25 years of rapid economic development have boosted living standards greatly, the severity of the associated environmental degradation is becoming ever more obvious. Already the mainland bears the questionable distinction of being home to seven of the world's ten most polluted cities, and respiratory illnesses related to extreme smog levels -- much of it from coal burning -- kill tens of thousands of people every year.
Meanwhile, China's voracious appetite for more energy continues to take a more direct toll (see BW, 4/11/05, "China's Wasteful Ways"). The same day that the water was turned back on in Harbin, in the same province of Heilongjiang, yet another coal mine blast claimed the lives of well over 100 miners -- victims too of China's breakneck economic expansion.
As the crisis in Harbin has shown, China's polluted water resources are a particular challenge for Beijing. Untreated sewage, industrial affluent, and farming fertilizer pours into China's water system, and already 70% of rivers and lakes are badly polluted. That's a particularly daunting reality given the mainland's relatively limited water resources. At a State Council meeting on Nov. 23 Premier Wen Jiabao said China's environment is facing a "grim situation."
Added an official statement released at the meeting's closing: "[We] must see clearly that at present we are discharging more waste than our environment can bear. As our economy develops and our consumption of resources and energy increases, our efforts to protect the environment will face greater and greater pressure."
MIDDLE-CLASS CONCERNS. It's obvious why China's top officials are worried -- their credibility is clearly on the line. Environmental issues in China's urban environs were once on the back burner, compared to more pressing concerns at that time, such as making a decent living. But as China's some 60 million middle class families grow more affluent, the quality of the environment is increasingly a major concern (see BW, 10/27/03, "Asia: Cleaning Up") .
Indeed, a survey of 10 cities late last year by Beijing-based Horizon Group showed that China's urban residents are more concerned about air quality and the environment than they are about economic development or even social security. "They increasingly have the same aspirations and concerns as the middle class everywhere," says Shanghai-based CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets economist Andy Rothman. "The environment is a key issue for the middle class, and they are putting pressure on the government to act on improving it."
Rural residents are also getting angry about environmental pollution, whether it involves the poisoning of water systems or their crops being damaged. And they're engaging in increasingly frequent violent protests. Particularly galling has been the realization that even as the population suffers environmental degradation, some local officials may be making big bucks.
FARMERS SPEAK UP. Thousands of irate farmers in Huaxi village, located in Dongyang, Zhejiang, violently protested in April against chemical plants they said were damaging their crops. And in July in another city in Zhejiang, farmers successfully forced a pharmaceutical factory to close for several days.
"There is much more environmental consciousness now in the countryside," says Jim Harkness, a longtime China-based environmentalist and former country representative for the World Wildlife Fund. "They now realize that environmental degradation may also involve local officials or private interests getting rich."
As is often true in China, even as authorities in Beijing attempt to rein in the worst polluting factories and issue new regulations to clean up the environment, the central government is often stymied by its inability to assert power over the provinces. That reality was evident when early this year China's State Environmental Protection Administration ordered 30 hydroelectric projects to shut down for not carrying out required environmental impact assessments -- but was roundly ignored (see BW, 7/11/05, "A Courageous Voice for a Greener China").
MORE BAD NEWS. Perhaps that explains why Beijing has become more tolerant of the rise of environmental nongovernmental organizations, which now number in the thousands, and so can play at least a limited watchdog role. Their power to affect real change is restricted however, by Beijing's continuing fear of allowing any rival social forces to the Communist Party, says Chinese environmentalist Dai Qing.
"The government is afraid of any organizing by its citizens -- they prefer we just take our orders from the Party," says Dai. After initially allowing the Chinese press to report openly and critically on the Harbin disaster, newspapers and other media outlets have been ordered to now take their reporting cues from the state-controlled Xinhua News Service. That's more bad news for China's already dismally dirty environment.
Roberts is BusinessWeek's Beijing bureau chief