Pollution and Secrecy in China


Air quality has plummeted in Beijing, with strong winds bringing massive amounts of dust from Mogolia to China’s capital, combined with heavy smog from polluting industries and power plants making the air all but unbreathable. Sunday, March 10, marked the second such dust-and-smog storm in Beijing in 10 days, where particular matter pollutants passed 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter—20 times the World Health Organization’s recommended level for safety—leading residents to stay indoors and police to don special protective masks.

The problem of China’s pollution has become a major public concern and has brought increasing scrutiny of government secrecy over environmental data. A recent article from Reuters details the struggles of attorney Dong Zhengwei who was told by China’s environment ministry that he could not have access to soil pollution data because it was a “state secret.”

In addition to the heavily polluted air, 40% of China’s soil is irrigated with underground water, the vast majority of which is polluted. Dong called soil pollution China’s “silent killer.” In June, Wu Xiaoqung, vice-minister of the environment promised to publish findings related to the ministry’s five-year ground-pollution survey which was launched in 2006. The $1.24 billion survey included testing of 200,000 samples of soil, groundwater and farm produce. But the 5 million pieces of data it turned up have not been made public. Another five-year plan focused on the cleanup of heavy metal pollution has also been kept secret.

The last reported figures were in 2006, when the ministry reported that more than 10% of farmland on China’s mainland was polluted and that 12 million tonnes of grain were contaminated with heavy metals.

Water pollution, too, is a major problem in China and also subject to state secrecy and cover-ups. A chemical spill at a fertilizer factory in Changzhi, China, on Dec. 31, affected one million residents. But the polluting factory, owned by the Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, delayed reporting the spill for five days as fish turned up dead in water that was too toxic to drink or give to animals.

“Our country, in a very short time over the past 30 years, has achieved brilliant economic achievements,” Xin Chunying, vice-director of the NPC standing committee’s working group on the legal system, told Reuters. “But at the same time, we have paid a heavy price with the environment. This price must stop, it has to be reduced, we must say ‘no’ to the status quo.”