River of Tears

 In Booming China, A Doctor Battles A Polluting Factory
 Fouled Waters Lead to Flood Of Protests Nationwide;
 Officials' Mixed Messages

 Inspired by Erin Brockovich

 July 19, 2006 By Shai Oster and Mei Fong

XIPING, China -- For the past five years, village doctor Zhang Changjian has rallied farmers here against a chemical factory dumping pollutants into a river.

This spring, they won a rare victory. A court found the pollution exceeded acceptable levels and ordered the Rongping Joint Chemical Plant to pay damages of about $85,000. But the farmers have yet to see any of the settlement. Mr. Zhang has been the target of police harassment, and the county government has closed down his clinic.

When a chemical factory in rural China started dumping pollutants into a nearby river and cancer rates soared, village doctor Zhang Changjian, above, organized a campaign that called national attention to local farmers' plight. He drew inspiration from the movie "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts, based on a true story of a woman's crusade for justice after similar pollution in California.

A quiet man with a crop of stubby, graying hair, Mr. Zhang, 46 years old, refuses to be cowed. He continues to dispense medicine and monitor Rongping, often circling the factory in plastic slippers, a camera clamped to his belt. "Our food is still poisoned," says Mr. Zhang, pointing out the factory's wastewater spilling into the foul-smelling river that eventually flows into the East China Sea. "The farmers can't sell their crops and they're too poor to move."
Water pollution is among the most worrisome byproducts of China's rapid economic growth. Factories and cities dump some 40 to 60 billion tons of wastewater and sewage into lakes and rivers each year, according to Chinese government estimates. About 30% of China's rivers are so dirty they aren't fit for industrial or agricultural use, according to official statistics. Some 300 million Chinese -- roughly the size of the entire U.S. population -- don't have access to clean drinking water. The polluted water is becoming an international issue as it flows into Russia and other parts of Asia.

The government has sent mixed signals about how it intends to tackle the problem. Governmental bodies have given awards to environmental activists, published data stressing the magnitude of the pollution and relaxed controls on antipollution groups. That has allowed activists to form links and share notes, often via the Internet. "We all know each other," says Wu Lihong, who has been fighting river pollution in his hometown near Shanghai.


Hong Kong Baptist University