Last August, residents of Chongqing town in the central Chinese province of Shaanxi surrounded the town’s huge lead works, run by China’s largest lead smelting company. It was a brave act in a totalitarian country. But the people of Chongqing were angry because the town’s doctors had found that of the 731 children they checked, 615 were suffering from lead poisoning caused by pollution from the Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Company.
The scandal erupted after a six-year-old girl named Miao Fan complained about a stomach ache. “At first we thought she was trying to avoid school,” said her mother. “We took her to the hospital and found my daughter had got lead poisoning. I never heard of that before, and I suggested my friends nearby have their children checked too.”
In all, 166 of the children were treated in local hospitals. Each had lived near the giant smelter. After the brief protest on August 3, a local newspaper reported the story on an inside page and town authorities issued a bland statement. The plant had emitted 1.11 tons of lead into the air and local watercourses in the previous year, the authorities said, but it had met all national environmental safety standards.
In the days before online news, that would probably have been the end of the matter. But reporters from the state Xinhua Online news service spotted the local item and a week later they showed up to investigate. Emboldened, the parents resumed their protest. They surrounded the smelter, tore down the wall, ransacked the offices, and destroyed machinery.
Now Xinhua had a story. Its splash on August 18 was accompanied by an editorial that asked: “If pollution standards were met, how is it that people are still poisoned by lead?” Within days, the factory was closed, and the Dongling case had set off a chain reaction across the country, as more and more citizens protested against metal smelters and mines, and Chinese journalists became bolder in reporting the protests.
If this were happening in the West, it would hardly be extraordinary that a major news story had developed out of events such as those in Chongqing. But in China, this was something new, points out Qian Gang, a leading Chinese journalist who studied how the story grew for the China Media Project, a research group at the University of Hong Kong. The major Communist Party news media, such as Xinhua, are starting to report environmental stories, he says. “High-level party media have taken the lead.” Of all the Chinese media, they are proving to be “the fiercest, both in revealing the facts and in offering shrill criticism”.
Why? In the past, the party media had always supported officials and covered up any scandals or misdeeds. If anyone was going to break such a story, it would likely have been the new commercial media. But Qian Gang notes that in China today, the central authorities often use the media as a means of exerting control over wayward local authorities or powerful commercial enterprises. It is also, he says, a means of monitoring popular discontent, known as yulun jiandu, or “supervision by public opinion”.
After the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which became a turning point in reporting in China, President Hu Jintao articulated his new press policy, which demanded that party media strengthen what he called “public opinion channeling”. Chinese media are referring to this as “grabbing the microphone” - under this strategy, the authorities control commercial media tightly, while affording privileges to the central party media, including a license to pursue investigations.
Pressure following the Xinhua reports resulted in the Dongling metals plant closing and 11 local public health officials being disciplined. Authorities distributed food that can help remove lead from the body, such as laver, garlic, wulong tea, and seaweed.
As the fastest-growing economy in the world for the past two decades, China is one of the world’s most polluted nations. But it is also becoming ground zero for citizens’ action on the new health and environmental issues created by industrialisation. In 2008, there was widespread public anger in China about toxins in food and consumer products. But in recent months, public attention has shifted to environmental pollution near mining and industrial workplaces. And Chinese media, headed by former party propaganda officials, are bringing the scandals to national - and sometimes international - attention.
Many of the concerns resemble those of previous eras in Europe and North America, especially the discovery of outright poisoning from heavy metals like lead, which causes symptoms ranging from abdominal pain and headaches to anaemia and impaired neurological development in children. In severe cases, children can lapse into a coma and die.
To date in China, protests and media scrutiny have led to a number of factory closings. But public protests appear ready to continue as government authorities struggle to assess where risks lie and how to combat them.