A lot to be angry about
Polluted, poisonous and immune to popular efforts to enforce a clean-up: Tai Lake is a metaphor for the state of China's politics
THE plain-clothes police are always there, watching Xu Jiehua. When she goes out, two of them follow by motorcycle. Sometimes an unmarked car joins them, tailing her closely on the narrow road winding past the factories and wheat fields around her village.
Ms Xu is used to the attention. Her husband, Wu Lihong, was arrested in April last year and sentenced four months later to three years in prison for fraud and blackmail. For her, the police harassment is proof that the charges were false, and that Mr Wu's only crime was to anger local officials with his tireless campaigning against pollution around nearby Tai Lake, China's third-biggest freshwater body. It is also a warning that she too should keep quiet.Last year nature appeared to vindicate Mr Wu. Soon after his arrest, the lake was choked by toxic algae fed by the phosphates from the human and industrial waste that had been poured into the water and its tributaries. For more than a week, the stinking growth disrupted the water supply of 2m people living on its shores. It was one of China's biggest environmental scandals since the Communist Party came to power. In Wuxi, the city closest to Mr Wu's home in Fenshui village, residents queued to buy bottled water. The Yangzi River was diverted to flush the algae out.
Amid an internet-fuelled uproar, officials promised to close down polluting factories and clean up an area once legendary for its beauty. But in late March blue-green blooms were again found along the southern shore. Such growths are rare so early in the year. Officials admit that despite their clean-up efforts the water remains at the lowest grade in China's water-quality scale, unfit for human contact, and that another “big bloom” is possible this year.
A repeat of the algae catastrophe on Tai Lake would be a huge embarrassment to both local officials and the central government. As they look nervously at protests around the country fuelled by an upsurge of anti-Western nationalism, the authorities are ever mindful that the anger could readily turn upon them too. Nationalist fervour may be helping to divert public attention away from the party's mishandling of Tibet—a remote problem in the minds of many Chinese. But it will do little to pacify citizens angered by official corruption, incompetence and negligence.
There are many such people. Officials rarely give figures, but they have said that the number of “mass incidents”—an ill-defined term—rose from 10,000 in 1994 to 74,000 in 2004. Suspiciously, the government reported a 22% decrease in the first nine months of 2006, but from a much lower base than previously announced figures had suggested. This may reflect underreporting by officials under pressure to show that their departments are achieving the goal of establishing a “harmonious society”, which the party has vowed to build by 2020.
The same internet and mobile-telephone technology that is helping China's angry young nationalists organise protests and boycotts is also helping other aggrieved citizens to unite. The past year has seen the first large-scale, middle-class protests in China over environmental issues: in the southern coastal city of Xiamen in June over the construction of a chemical factory, and in January this year in Shanghai over plans to extend a magnetic levitation train line.
For all the central government's green talk, a complex web of local interests sometimes linked with powerful figures in Beijing often frustrates efforts to deal with the problems that lead to such unrest. Wu Lihong's campaigning around Tai Lake threatened factories, the governments that depend on them for revenues and the jobs the factories provide. The anger of laid-off workers has long been one of officialdom's biggest worries. A factory where Ms Xu worked was among those Mr Wu helped force to stop production.
In 2002, after peasants blocked a road in protest over pollution in their fields, Mr Wu was jailed for 15 days for allegedly inciting them. He tried to launch an environmental NGO but officials turned down his request to register it (Wuxi already had one, they said, and that was enough). The police summoned him several times to warn him to cease his activities. But Mr Wu, ignoring his wife's remonstrations, persisted. He spent the family's savings on work such as gathering pollution data and lobbying the domestic and foreign press.
The official press—at least organs beyond the control of the local bureaucracy—reported on his efforts glowingly. His living-room is adorned with tributes: an award in 2005 from the central government naming him one of the year's ten “outstanding environmental-protection personalities”; a photograph of him receiving an honour for his environmental work in 2006 from the Ford Motor company.
But local officials were not impressed. One evening in April last year, when Mr Wu and his wife were watching television in their bedroom upstairs, police climbed up a ladder, through a window and took him away. They then smashed into his study and seized papers. Ms Xu still has the pile of cigarette stubs they left on the floor.
Mr Wu, who is 40, was found guilty in August of extorting money from an environmental-equipment manufacturer by threatening to inform the authorities that products supplied to a steel company were substandard. The court also ruled that he had cheated the company by claiming to represent the equipment-maker and seeking payment for the sale. The amount involved was 45,000 yuan ($5,940). Mr Wu denied the charges and told the court that his confession had been extracted by torture. Ms Xu says journalists were barred from the proceedings and no witnesses were produced for cross-examination.
A higher municipal court rejected Mr Wu's appeal last November. Last month Ms Xu submitted an appeal to a court in Nanjing, the capital of their province, Jiangsu. But she says she has no hope of success. The polluting companies her husband campaigned against remain open and the authorities have closed only unprofitable ones, she says. She shows visitors one alleged offender, a new lakeside resort complex. Since last year's disaster, the then Jiangsu party chief, Li Yuanchao, has been promoted to the ruling Politburo.
Ms Xu believes the national media have been quietly ordered to avoid mention of her husband. The police stopped an attempt by relatives to circulate a petition for his release (more than 100 people signed it before the police seized it, she says). Officials have warned Ms Xu not to talk to the press. A senior environmental-protection official said this month that the battle against Tai Lake's algae problem would be a protracted one. So too will efforts to silence whistle-blowers.