The walls of the village have recently been repainted with trees, waterfalls and the uplifting slogan: “I will contribute to the success of the Olympics and help establish a civilized new community.”
The people of Houwang Gezhuang, however, have other matters on their minds.
Sitting in front of his traditional brick house a few yards away, 77-year-old Kong Qingyu, a farmer, spoke about his brother’s recent death from throat cancer.
“Everything was OK until the factory came and then people started to die. You can’t see the pollution. But it is there. The factory pumps out waste after midnight,” Kong said.
In a side street, a 57-year-old woman described her husband’s illness — stomach cancer, according to doctors from Peking University.
“He’s getting weaker and weaker,” she said. “In the past two months there have been two new cases.”
The people of Houwang Gezhuang believe that their small community, hidden among fields and birch trees an hour’s drive from Beijing, has joined the ranks of China’s “cancer villages.”
They blame the chemical factory built in the area five years ago for 25 villagers being diagnosed and 19 dying since 2002. Like the vast majority of the scores of such communities where “cancer clusters” have been detected, they have little hard evidence to back their claim, which is denied by the factory’s owners.
Nevertheless, they have launched a legal case for compensation, inspired by the success of other communities that have won money from polluters.
Now, because of the Olympics, the villagers of Houwang Gezhuang will have to wait until the fall for a decision.
“We have been told nothing will be settled either way until after the Olympics,” one villager said. “Otherwise it could be bad for the image of Beijing and the country.”
With the Games six weeks away, authorities in China are going to extreme lengths to ensure that nothing mars the opportunity to flaunt the nation’s new economic, political and cultural power — and its new green credentials — to the world. A vast program of “beautification” has seen 40 million flowers and tens of thousands of trees planted in Beijing alone.
Lu Haijun (陸海軍), director of the Beijing 2008 Environmental Construction Office, said that more “aesthetically pleasing” curving roofs had been fitted to 2,615 old blocks of flats and 20,000 more repainted. Other infrastructure projects, such as a vastly expanded and heavily subsidized metro system, will also help to “green” the capital, it is hoped.
During the two weeks of the Games, to ensure a semblance of clean air for the athletes, the dirtiest power stations, construction sites and industries around the city will be shut down, said Du Shaozhong (杜少中), deputy director of the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau.
More controversially, public opinion is being buffed and polished by the authorities as well. A crackdown has begun on negative press and potentially “destabilizing” environmental activism, even that as apparently unthreatening as the legal action of the villagers of Houwang Gezhuang.
The stories that regularly expose pollution and corruption — the two are often interlinked — have disappeared from the wires of Xinhua news agency. Normally vocal environmental activists now avoid talking. One said last week that she had been told by the government not to speak to the foreign press. Some experts have been warned off making public statements.
Within 30 minutes of arriving in Houwang Gezhuang, this reporter was firmly escorted to the local Communist Party office, lectured, shown government reports on tests on the local water that revealed “no problem,” detained while more senior officials arrived and then escorted from the village by police.
“Until the Olympics are over, things have to be regulated. This is the order we have had from the government,” said Wang Hue, village chairman and local Communist Party chief.
“There is no point in interviewing the villagers. I am their representative and I know they agree with the government. Those who launched the lawsuit are troublemakers,” Wang said.
China has long been sensitive to its reputation as a major polluter — both internally and in terms of global carbon emissions. The WHO recently estimated that diseases triggered by air pollution kill 656,000 Chinese a year and polluted drinking water kills another 95,600. One Chinese government report attributed a 40 percent rise in birth defects since 2001 to pollution.
The government has taken major steps in recent years to improve the situation, with a series of laws passed to punish offenders and to force disclosure by industries of discharges of hazardous chemicals.
“China has really made progress in the last five years, especially in disclosure and environmental information, and is strengthening enforcement,” said Mah Jongg, a high-profile environmental campaigner.
However, enforcement of the new laws is variable and problems persist at a local level, where officials often collude with polluting businesses.
“The Olympics have helped focus attention on environmental protection, but it is a one-off event and environmental protection is long-term,” Mah said.
In Houwang Gezhuang, the villagers are resigned.
“If it is bad for the image of the city to have a decision on our court case before the Olympics, we will wait,” said one farmer as he played cards in the street.
“We can’t do anything else. We are just poor villagers,” he said.
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