Monday, October 15, 2007

The death of Lake Tai

Another disturbing story in today’s International Herald Tribune shows that being an environmentalist in China is almost as dangerous as being a journalist in Myanmar.

The story is about Wu Lihong, a 40-year-old factory salesman turned environmentalist who was jailed for three years on some trumped-up charges of blackmail and threatening to extort money from the Communist Party Committee of Zhoutie by threatening to report pollution problems.

The story reported that Wu had been tortured for five days and forced to sign a confession, but because he couldn’t prove to the judges that he had been tortured, he was jailed on the basis of his ‘confession’, and his lawyer denied the right to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses.

Wu’s real ‘crime’ was that he was trying to expose the pollution of Lake Tai, once one of the Yangtze delta plain’s most beautiful lakes (and the third largest freshwater lake in China) but which is now covered in a foul-smelling green algae.

The pollution of the lake, according to Mr Wu, had been caused by the 2,800 chemical factories that were situated around the lake, manufacturing food additives, solvents and adhesives, and illegally discharging effluents into the lake.

The story reported that local rice farmers couldn’t tend their padi fields without wearing rubber gloves and boots because the irrigation water from the lake caused their skin to peel off.

But the most incredible part of the story is about the visit of Wen Jiabao (then a vice premier, now China's prime minister) in 2001 who came to investigate reports of Lake Tai's pollution. The IHT story reported: “Like most Communist Party inspection tours, word of this one reached local officials in advance. When Wen asked to see a typical dye plant, one was made ready, according to several people who witnessed the preparations. The factory got a fresh coat of paint. The canal that ran beside it was drained, dredged and refilled with fresh water. Shortly before Wen's motorcade arrived, workers dumped thousands of carp into the canal. Farmers were positioned along the banks holding fishing rods. Wen spent 20 minutes there. A picture of him shaking hands with the factory boss hangs in its lobby”.

That’s almost unbelievable, but doesn’t surprise me knowing to what lengths the Chinese government will go to muzzle environmentalists.

As the IHT story pointed out: “Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China, in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out.

“Senior officials have tried to address environmental woes mostly through pulling the traditional levers of China's authoritarian system: issuing command quotas on energy efficiency and emissions reduction; punishing corrupt officials who shield polluters; planting billions of trees across the country to hold back deserts and absorb carbon dioxide.

“But they do not dare to unleash individuals who want to make China cleaner. Grass-roots environmentalists arguably do more to expose abuses than any edict emanating from Beijing. But they face a political climate that varies from lukewarm tolerance to icy suppression”.

The full story is quite a long one, but well worth reading by anyone interested in the preservation of the environment, and the ongoing persecution of grassroots environmentalists in China. To read the full story CLICK HERE