One morning this summer, residents of Wuxi City, in China's
eastern Jiangsu Province, awoke to find their beloved
Taihu Lake had turned rancid. The water was filled with a bloom of
blue-green algae that gave off a rotten smell. The water was tested
to be undrinkable.
For almost three decades, the city had welcomed some of the
world's biggest polluters to settle there. Churning out paper,
photographic film, dye, fertilizer, cement and other products for
the global marketplace, the businesses helped make Wuxi into one of
the country's wealthiest industrial cities.
A woman holds two bottles
of blue-green algae polluted water sampled from Taihu Basin's
Huzhou section on November 22, 2006. Polluting discharges
poisoned Jiangsu Province's vast network of lakes, rivers and
However, these firms also poisoned the province's vast network
of lakes, rivers and canals. In late May, when the toxic sludge
reached Taihu Lake, which is the main source of potable water for
Wuxi's 5.8 million residents, people turned on their taps and got
City officials decided they'd had enough. In a series of radical
proclamations that sent shudders though the business community,
Wuxi declared itself a newly reformed "green city", the
Washington Post reported on its Saturday edition.
By the end of September, the city had closed or given directives
to close more than 1,340 polluting factories. Wuxi ordered the rest
to clean up by coming June or be permanently shut down.
The actions were applauded by Premier Wen Jiabao, who has vowed to use economic
incentives and punishments to aid in environmental protection and
resource protection. Last week, the State Council, which Premier
Wen heads, approved an environmental plan that includes reducing
major pollutant discharges by 10 percent by 2010, a formidable
challenge facing the government but not a target unattainable,
Plagued by worsening water shortage, choking on dusty air and
alarmed by a sharp rise in pollution-related diseases and deaths,
China has been searching for years for a way to fix its environment
without hurting its economy.
The Washington Post report quoted Elizabeth Economy, a
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The River
Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China's Future," as
saying that, this time "the commitment, the profile, the energy
behind Beijing's environmental protection efforts far exceeds
anything we've seen in China's history.
"It's not about new ideas, but about enforcement. . . . What is
changing are the incentives or disincentives, " Economy told the
In 2007, some Chinese cities are taking measures that show that
their officials are beginning to make the environment a higher
priority than raising their GDP, a fundamental shift in thinking
for a country that can attribute much of its early-stage
development to being the place to which others outsourced their
pollution, the Washington Post report said.
And, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), a
cabinet ministry of the State Council, now is empowered with more
teeth. It has armed local governments with new tools for punishing
polluters. Chinese banks now have the right to deny loans to
polluting companies, which are on SPEA's polluters blacklist.
And, SEPA officials are able to force violators to issue
humiliating public apologies in newspapers or television
announcements detailing their crimes. Also, utility companies are
empowered to raise electricity, gas or water rates for companies
that consume too many resources.
The result has been devastating for a growing number of
companies, the Washington Post reported.
In Heilongjiang Province in the northeast,
officials have announced that they had kicked out 100 polluting
enterprises that were sending industrial runoff into a river that
empties in Russia. In Shanxi Province, China's largest coal-mining
area, officials have closed down most industry in a county whose
outdated machinery polluted waterways. And in Inner Mongolia, the government closed a
production facility for one of China's biggest companies, Mengniu
Dairy, because it had been operating without wastewater processing
facilities and discharging waste into the Yellow River.
Ventures that are fully or partly owned by foreigners have also
been caught in the inspections. This month, Unilever China, which
makes soap, shampoo and other cleaners, was fined and ordered to
reduce production because of excessive discharges.
Liu Yamin, chief of Wuxi's Environmental Protection Bureau,
acknowledged that as the city transforms itself from dependence on
industry to a focus on high-tech research, there will be growing
"The blue-green algae gave us a warning, a shock, but we Chinese
have a saying that a bad thing can be turned into a good thing,"
Businesses say that the environmental measures are good in
theory but that they worry about unemployment and whether the laws
are being applied fairly.
Wuxi Dongtai Fine Chemical Industry was fined US$13,000 and
ordered to stop making one of its products for failing to meet
environmental standards. The city said Dongtai leaked chemicals
into a river that flows into Tai Lake.
Feng Jing, Dongtai's office manger, said the incident was minor,
caused by small cracks in its piping system, but that the
punishment was severe. As a result, the company laid off 50 of its
Feng Jing told the Washington Post reporter that worse
offenders are still operating.
"As a civilian, I cannot say that current measures taken by the
government are wrong . . . but the government really has gone a
little too far," Feng said.
Wang Guoxiang, director of the Research Center for
Eco-Environmental Sciences at Nanjing Normal University in Jiangsu Province, said government engineers
tried every scientific alternative possible, spending US$1.3
billion to try to save Taihu Lake. They dug up the silt and
replaced it. They poured fresh water into the lake and redirected
rivers to try to wash the pollution away. They even seeded clouds
to create rain to dilute the polluted water.
But it took an algae crisis to force the government to start
(China Daily October 8, 2007)