China blames growing social unrest on anger over pollution

 Dirty water and air kill 500,000 a year, says report
 Environment chief points finger at corrupt officials

Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Friday July 6, 2007

The head of China's environmental agency has 
blamed the rising number of riots, demonstrations 
and petitions across the country on public anger 
at pollution.

Echoing the language of the Cultural Revolution, 
Zhou Shengxian called for a "struggle" against 
polluters, and said the public refused to accept 
the increasing degradation of the environment.

His unusually outspoken comments underscore the 
frustration of state mandarins at local 
government officials who ignore environmental 
standards in order to attract investment, jobs 
and bribes.

Breakneck growth has turned China into a huge 
environmental disaster area. A 
soon-to-be-published World Bank report says some 
500,000 people die each year as a result of 

Beijing is trying to shift the economy on to a 
more sustainable development track. The state 
council - China's cabinet - tightened the water 
pollution law to require more testing, licensing 
and stiffer penalties, the state-run Xinhua news 
agency reported yesterday.

But factory owners who violate state guidelines 
are often protected by local officials. According 
to Mr Zhou, the state environmental protection 
administration chief, many plants build secret 
pipes to discharge polluting chemicals. Others 
release toxins when locals are asleep.

The China Daily quoted him as saying: "Some 
businesses don't rest deep in the night when they 
have no scruples about dumping pollution in 

In a recent inspection of 529 firms along the 
Yellow, Yangtze and other major rivers and lakes, 
44% had violated environmental laws, while almost 
half of the 75 waste water treatment facilities 
underperformed or did not work. Mr Zhou said some 
waterways resembled "sticky glue".

The absence of protection has stirred up 
discontent, he said, and prompted a growing 
number of "mass incidents", the term used to 
describe protests. He said petitions received by 
his agency this year were up 8%. While not 
endorsing protests, Mr Zhou called for local 
environmental officials to stand up to violators.

Demonstrations against power and chemical plants 
have become increasingly common in recent years. 
In May, thousands took to the streets of Xiamen, 
in Fujian province, leading to the suspension of 
a petrochemical plant. In 2005, police killed at 
least three villagers in Dongzhou, Guangdong 
province, while quelling a riot over a planned 
power plant.

Anger has been fuelled by unfair land grabs and 
health fears. According to the government, 
two-thirds of China's 595 cities now have 
unhealthy air.

Pollution scandals are common. Earlier yesterday, 
state media reported that tap water had been 
restored to 200,000 residents of Shuyang county 
in Jiangsu after a chemical spill halted supplies 
for 40 hours. The environment agency said more 
than a quarter of the seven main river systems 
were so polluted that the water was unfit for 
human contact.

The tendency towards secrecy has increased 
concerns. According to the FT, officials have 
tried to remove figures from a World Bank report 
that suggest up to 400,000 people in China die 
each year from outdoor air pollution, 30,000 from 
indoor air pollution, and 60,000 from water 
pollution. The government denies it has tried to