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Shelley Jiang

The Horrific Cost of China’s Breakneck Development: Cancer Villages

Follow the spread of China’s development and you’ll find a shadow in its wake: Cancer villages. These are the places where the price for China’s dizzying pace of development is highest, where cancer rates have skyrocketed in the last two decades and almost no family is without a victim.

Officially and unofficially, the Chinese media have reported 459 “cancer villages” (癌症村) throughout China. They have been reported in every province and autonomous region, with the exception of Qinghai and Tibet. Once a rare disease, cancer is now the biggest killer in both urban and rural China; mortality rates have grown 80 percent in the last 30 years.

The map of cancer village concentration that got Weibo users talking. Via Weibo

The cancers in these villages are unusual for developed countries: Esophageal, intestinal, of the liver, rectal–all cancers of the digestive tract. That’s because most villages still have no running water and rely on rivers and groundwater for everything from drinking and cooking to farming. Unfortunately, most factories are built by river banks, and industrial wastewater has polluted much of the country’s water systems, with 40 percent of rivers and 55 percent of groundwater unfit for drinking according to a 2012 government report. As the map at right shows, many cancer villages are clustered by the Yellow, Yangtze, and Hai rivers.

Netizens corroborate this chilling story. “I am from Taizhou [in Zhejiang province, on the Yangtze River], and recently there really has been a lot of cancer,” writes @海角天涯1999 on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. “My father’s generation says that the river water was once drinkable; then it could only be used for laundry and swimming; and later it was fit only for cleaning toilets. Now it can only be used for dumping trash, and the smell along the banks is very bad … Recently the groundwater has also been severely polluted, and it too is no longer drinkable, but farmers still use it to water their crops. Eat the crops, and die from poison. Don’t eat it, and starve.”

Paradoxically, over 86 percent of cancer villages are found in China’s wealthiest east coast provinces. But they are located in the poorest counties there. Slowly, people are realizing that China’s miracle economic growth may be coming at too high a cost. @小兔和她的朋友们 writes, “Chinese people really do sell their lives for money, but the money earned does not necessarily buy back life.” Reflecting on the value of a life, @南京的唐唐 comments that “Chinese people all live for GDP,” and @冀叟123 writes that “For GDP, there is no river or land that cannot be polluted.”

Originally published in a 2010 article in the U.S.-based Environment magazine, the map attracted attention on Weibo after being shared by @环保董良杰 under the title “Cancer Villages: Made in China.” The image comes, of course, at a time when Chinese social media is immersed in the ongoing furor over Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands. Yet the story of the cancer villages and environmental pollution is far more real and painful for millions of ordinary citizens than the ownership of a few faraway islands.

Observers have pointed out this irony. “The nationalist youth have all gone off to attack the Diaoyu Islands. No one cares about the poor mess at home,” wrote @暂无名2 in response to the cancer maps. @乡下宁宁 asked, “Not many people care about these [environmental] issues–do they think they can all move to the Diaoyu Islands?”

Indeed, anti-Japanese sentiment is potentially useful for the Chinese government, as an alternative vent for frustrations and anger that may otherwise explode over more volatile problems at home. In recent years people have become more willing to take to the streets to demand environmental justice and oppose factory construction, as they have done in Shifang, Sichuan province and Qidong, Jiangsu province in 2012, not to mention Dalian, Shenyang province and Haimen, Guangdong province in 2011. Meanwhile, public outcry over the Beijing city government’s failure to monitor air quality for PM2.5, the smallest and most hazardous particulate pollutants, largely took place over Weibo and other online social media platforms. 

Enabled by and amplified over social media, these protests are a sign of China’s growing environmental consciousness and burgeoning unwillingness to tolerate air and water pollution. As @冀叟123 writes, “This is a serious, difficult question that requires collective action to solve and completely eradicate all kinds of pollution sources–to be like Shifang and Qidong, to protect the earth, sky, lake, and rivers that we rely on for survival, to let the fields slowly recover from the accumulated heavy metals, and give the earth a respite.” {{Chinese}}[[Chinese]]这是个积重难反的问题,要想解决必须全民行动,,彻底清除各类污染源。像什邡和启东那样保卫自己赖以生存的大地天空湖泊江河。让良田积淀的重金属残渣缓缓稀释,给土地一个缓歇。 [[Chinese]] Given the growing wave of environmental awareness, it is likely that there will be more debate and protest online–and offline. 

Via Weibo

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Shelley Jiang

Beijing-born Shelley Jiang spent five years in China writing, traveling, working for an environmental organization, and eating delicious things. She was only lured back to the U.S. by UC Berkeley’s masters of public policy program, where she studies climate change, energy, and environmental issues.