Digging deeper

Soil survey results classed as ‘state secret’

Digging deeper

Jack Ma recently caused a stir when he spoke at the Yabuli China Entrepreneurs Forum. But this time it was not because of bold predictions about the future of e-commerce. Rather it was because Ma made clear his concerns about China’s environmental future.

Because of pollution, cancer will trouble every family in China within a decade, the Alibaba boss predicted. He said the problem was already evident: “Thirty years ago, how many people knew somebody with cancer? Cancer was a rare word. Now it has become a common disease. Liver cancer may have something to do with the polluted water; lung cancer has something to do with our air; gastric cancer has something to do with our food.”

According to website Global Voices, Ma then added: “I worry that we work so hard, but that all we earn goes towards medical expenses. No matter how much money you make, if you can’t enjoy the sunshine, it is really just a tragedy.”

The comment got forwarded over 100,000 times on Sina Weibo, and comes during a period in which there has been much discussion about air quality after toxic smogs draped much the country in January and February (see WiC178). Netizens have also been campaigning to draw attention to polluted river and groundwater (see WiC183).

The next front? Probably soil pollution, where the news seems so bad that the government remains wary of releasing any new data.

The controversy over soil contamination began last week when Beijing lawyer Dong Zhengwei applied to the Ministry of Environment Protection to disclose details of a nationwide soil survey. It rebuffed the request, telling Dong that it was a “state secret”.

The soil survey was carried out between 2006 and 2010, but thus far has not been disclosed. But Wang Shuyi, a director of the Environmental Law Institute at Wuhan University told reporters that the soil pollution data should not be classed as matter of state security. Instead it should be published, he urged, as every citizen has the right to see the survey’s results.

Certainly, the anecdotal evidence leads to suspicions that the results could be alarming. The 21CN Business Herald says that news of what is termed ‘poisonous land’ in China has been on the increase. The newspaper claims awareness grew after an infamous incident in Wuhan, when a developer bought a piece of land previously occupied by the Wuhan Pesticide Works. In 2007 construction had to be halted after labourers died of poisoning and three years later the developer was refunded its purchase price and paid compensation. The local government then announced it would spend Rmb280 million ($45 million) ‘repairing’ the 160,000 square metre toxic plot.

21CN also predicts that the government will relent, releasing the soil pollution data, citing earlier experiences with the SARS virus and PM2.5 air pollution, where information was originally suppressed before finally being made public.

But the seemingly relentless news about China’s pollution is also getting the attention of foreign investors. An article this week on the Financial Times Alphaville website quoted from two brokerage reports that have tried to estimate the damage to Chinese GDP posed by the worsening air quality. The FT commented that the analysts’ work reveals new awareness of how environmental damage is going to limit some of China’s economic prospects in the years ahead, as the country pays the eco bill for decades of breakneck growth and industrial discharges. It’s a topic WiC has touched on repeatedly (a good example is the pending water crisis, discussed in issue 139).

In his swansong speech to the National People’s Congress this week, Premier Wen Jiabao also acknowledged it: “The government should be determined to solve prominent environmental pollution problems that concern the public interest, such as airborne, water or soil pollution and should give hope to the public with practical action.”

Cynics abound. Zhong Nanshan, the outspoken head of the Guangdong Institute of Respiratory Diseases, wrote on his weibo on Wednesday: “Dare you talk about social harmony? Dare you talk about planning blueprints? The basic necessities for human survival are just air, food and water. If even these aren’t safe, there simply won’t be any sense of happiness.”

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