Chinese Get Angrier About Pollution

China has some of the most polluted cities in the world, a consequence of the country's rapid economic development. More than 320 million people in China drink unsafe water, according to Greenpeace China. The country's Environmental Protection Administration considers 45% of the rivers and waterways it monitors to be unsuitable for human contact, says Greenpeace.

Now, after years of silent suffering from the effects of filthy air and dirty water, many Chinese are saying they've had enough. And in some cases, their protests are turning violent.

The latest example of anti-pollution anger erupting into protests took place in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian. On Aug. 31 villagers angry about pollution from local factories took to the streets in Fengwei, a town near the city of Quanzhou. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported on Sept. 2 that more than 10,000 people clashed with some 2,000 riot police and took two government officials hostage. Inside China, the state-controlled media are reporting sparingly on the violence, with the local Quanzhou Evening News describing efforts by government officials to strengthen communication with local residents—and reporting that the two hostages had been freed.

The protesters in Fujian likely have been hearing about anti-pollution events in other parts of the country. "People are increasingly taking their grievances to the streets," says Jamie Choi, a manager with Greenpeace China in Beijing. She says there were 50,000 pollution-related protests in 2005, the last year the government provided statistics, and the actual number now "probably is a lot higher." In one high-profile case last month, villagers in the northern province of Shaanxi targeted a smelting plant accused of contaminating the local water supply with lead. Even the state-controlled media have been reporting on cancer clusters in villages close to heavily polluting factories.

Connecting the Dots That means there may be more protests like the one in Fujian. As more people around the country focus on industrial pollution in other parts of China, they're going to ask about the situation in their backyard, says David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations and a professor of political science at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. "All of a sudden there will be people all over China who will say I smell this crap [from a local factory], and my aunt died," he says. "They will put it together."

For the Chinese government, that presents a special challenge. Zweig likens the situation to the one in the Julia Roberts movie about a small California town with a contaminated water supply, except on a China scale. "Imagine 10,000 Erin Brockovich villages," he says.

Although demonstrations typically target Chinese factories, the growing concern about pollution could lead to trouble for multinational companies, too. The violence in Fujian, for instance, took place near the city where ExxonMobil (XOM), Saudi Aramco, and China's state-owned oil giant, Sinopec, are building a large refinery complex scheduled to open next year. An ExxonMobil spokesperson in China would not comment, saying only that the protests had nothing to do with the joint venture. A staff member at Sinopec's information office e-mailed BusinessWeek to say "we take many measures during production, so we don't have pollution problems."

China's government is aware of the need to crack down on polluters. Officials in large coastal cities such as Guangzhou have promoted greener industries and encouraged factories that cause the worst pollution to move. At the national level, regulators have been targeting some of the worst polluters for years. "Provisions are really quite clear and explicit," says Peter Hills, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and director of the school's Kadoorie Center. The problem is "the implementation of regulations is not always consistent or effective from one province to another or even one municipality to another," he says. In a country going through a rapid economic transformation, China's pollution woes, in part, are the result of "a regulatory system that has been struggling to catch up with this incredible growth."

Exploring Legal Channels Even some of the government's toughest critics say there is reason for optimism, though. Han Dongfang, who took part in the 1989 demonstrations that ended with the Tiananmen Square crackdown, is now the director of the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on issues related to worker rights. He says it's understandable people in Fujian and elsewhere have taken to the streets. "Whenever you have anger, you keep quiet, but when you cannot swallow it anymore, the only way to put it out is to explode," he says.

Still, Han adds, there are alternatives to violence that have proven to be effective. For instance, he says his NGO recently provided advice to more than 100 construction workers in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, who argued they suffered from lung disease as a result of exposure to pollutants on the job. Initially the workers got nowhere and staged a sit-in at a government office. Then they filed a lawsuit in local court, and soon officials showed willingness to negotiate about offering them compensation, says Han. Despite the extent of the pollution problems in China, he believes, violent demonstrations may not have to be inevitable. "When people figure out legal terms and start acting using the laws," he says, "it could help to improve the situation and prevent these unnecessary events."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.