Thousands of Chinese people are making their way to Beijing this week to lodge their complaints during the annual sitting of parliament. Some of these grievances will concern the appalling pollution that reaches to the remotest corners of the country.

Only a quarter of China’s surface water is fit for industrial use. For drinking water almost exclusively groundwater is used, but even that is seriously polluted. In the poverty-stricken village of Leifeng, a local drinks manufacturer dumped toxic hydrofluoric acid.

The thousand inhabitants of Leifeng couldn’t have lived in a more remote spot. The village, near the border with Siberia, is covered in a thick layer of snow during the winter. Not surprisingly, then, it is home to a small alcohol factory, which produces ‘baijiu’, the Chinese version of vodka. But the factory proved to be more of a curse than a blessing, as 14-year-old Zhang Guanghui explains:

“My mother worked in the factory for three months. She treated the bottles with acid, so the glass looked frosted. The work made her ill. Now she’s dead. We had to sell our house. My father now works a long way away and I live with my uncle.”

The acid that Guanghui’s mother used to etch to bottles was hydrofluoric acid. The exposure to it during her work, in combination with the polluted drinking water, proved fatal. Because as Guanghui’s neighbour explains, the factory was also dumping large quantities of the chemical in three disused wells in the factory grounds. And thus it entered the groundwater and the wells for drinking water used by the village’s farming families. Guanghui’s mother is the only person to die of the poisoning up to now, but hundreds of villagers are ill.

Brittle bones
Guanghui looks like a boy of ten. The growth of other children in Leifeng has also been retarded by their exposure to the pollutant. Fluoride seems innocent enough but high concentrations in drinking water can cause brittle bones and damage teeth as well as causing memory loss and eye, stomach and liver problems. Chinese research has also indicated that high concentrations of fluoride in children can lead to a reduction in IQ.

Zhang Ruwen (pictured below), Guanghui’s uncle, has been fighting for justice since 2002.

“My sister-in-law died, my nephew is handicapped and my brother left the village and he had psychological problems because of that poison.”

There are tears in his eyes as he tells of his sister-in-law’s deathbed request:

“Your brother can’t do it but you have such a strong sense of justice. After I die, you must get justice for me”.

Mr Zhang, working with a retired lawyer, has compiled a dossier detailing the cases of 25 villagers. The x-rays and medical reports were investigated twice by a university in Beijing. Armed with the dossiers, the two men went to Beijing in 2002 to present their case before the highest national complaints commission. The complaints commission ruled in favour of the villagers from Leifeng and local authorities were forced to agree to solve the case within 10 days.

Very little has happened since then. The director of the regional court has refused to comment on the case. In 2006, free piped water was installed for everybody living within 60 km radius of the factory. A few of the villagers have been awarded damages and even collected the money but only on condition that they will undertake no further legal proceedings. The overwhelming majority of the villagers have received nothing.

The villagers are divided; some of them are too scared to initiate legal proceedings as the director of the factory has got good connections. They say its impossible to win the case as the factory bosses have bribed the authorities and a criminal prosecution as a lost cause despite the strict environmental and pollution laws.

Some of the villagers are still hoping for financial compensation high enough to pay for painkillers. But even their leader is beginning to lose hope. Justice for the residents of Leifeng will only come about as a result of the economic crisis. After all, the global financial crisis has already forced scores of polluting factories to close across China.

* RNW translation (mb/jc)