Friday, March 1, 2013

Chinese Officials Dared to Swim in Toxic Water

Story first appeared on USA Today -

Swim for a half-hour in a river in east China's Cangnan county and win $48,000.
Sound like easy money? Take a look at the river.

Chinese angry about their toxic and trash-choked rivers have made online offers of cash rewards to the chiefs of their local government's environmental protection bureaus to take a swim in the waterways they are in charge of protecting.

One Internet posting offers $32,000 if an official will spend 20 minutes in a river in Rui'an or $16,000 for a 10-minute river dip in Dongguan down south.

None of the Internet users expects the officials to take the bait. The social media campaign against water pollution that inspired these rewards leads some analysts to hope authorities will take action after the relative success of a public movement to increase government transparency over the abysmal air quality in many Chinese cities.

China's water and air quality has long been sacrificed by the government to China's thirst for industrial growth in recent decades. Even the government releases grim statistics: 64% of groundwater in 118 Chinese cities is "severely polluted," state news agency Xinhua reports.

To provide examples, Chinese journalist and activist Deng Fei, whose Twitter-like micro-blog has almost 3 million followers, asked people last week to post pictures of rivers in their hometowns as they traveled there for the recent Lunar New Year celebrations.

The strong response, by thousands of Chinese Internet users, "shows more Chinese pay close attention to pollution, and now they have the tools to express their opinions," Deng said.

Although China's citizens still lack formal channels, such as democratic elections, to influence their government, this social-media-driven campaign "has become a large-scale discussion topic that shows the will of the people," so China's "parliament," the National People's Congress (NPC), and ministries must take notice, he said.

Two delegates to next month's annual session of the NPC — when the ruling Communist Party's new leader, Xi Jinping, will be appointed president — promised to raise the issue of water pollution, Deng said.

The rewards for hazardous swimming started Saturday when eyeglass entrepreneur Jin Zengmin posted photos online of a filthy river in Rui'an in Zhejiang province, with his $32,000 bet for the area's environmental protection director. Jin reminisced about swimming in the river as a child and watching his mother washing clothes there.

"Even animals don't dare swim in these rivers, much less officials," Deng said.

The offering of money "is an expression of anger and frustration over the dereliction of duty by local environmental officials and their failure to enforce the rules," said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based non-profit group.  Middle-aged Chinese "remember their rivers used to be cleaner, drinkable, swimmable and touchable, but no longer," he said.

This social media push has the potential to grow into something similar to the air quality campaign, given that the problem of water pollution is as bad or even worse, Ma said. "The local government still puts GDP (gross domestic product) rate ahead of environmental protection. We need the public to change that," he said.

The chief environmental official in Rui'an, Bao Zhenmin, blamed river pollution on rubbish discarded by residents and migrant workers, not shoe factories, as Jin alleged. Bao promised steps to reduce the problem, reported.

Deng said the answer is for the government to share more information with the public about water discharges, increase legal penalties against illegal discharges and ease restrictions on people filing lawsuits in environmental cases. He said environmental offices should be controlled by Beijing, not the local governments often responsible for pollution.