Liz Carter senior contributor

Chinese Activist Web Users Take Aim at Water Pollution, and Censors Strike Back

An earlier image of red water pollution in Lukang river. (Changhua Coast Conservation Action/Flickr

Smog isn’t the only kind of pollution making headlines in China. Environmental activist Deng Fei recently encouraged users of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, to share pictures of polluted rivers from their hometowns, taking on local issues in a national campaign. While the aesthetic aspect of this pollution has been a source of great dissatisfaction, news of intentional waste dumping by Chinese factories has also aroused widespread anger, becoming the number-one trending topic on Sina Weibo.

News broke on social media that not only were companies polluting the water, but were intentionally pumping wastewater into the ground through high-pressure pipes in order to avoid complying with regulations. The polluted water has caused cancer in many nearby residents, according to reports, and affected the development of local children. A company in Weifang, Shandong was implicated when a journalist travelled there to cover the story.

This image of severe pollution has been widely shared during the ongoing online campaign. (Via Weibo)

In a post deleted by censors on Sina Weibo, a lawyer named Gan Yuanchun described how officials from Weifang, Shandong sent some of their subordinates to Beijing to prevent media from breaking the news. China Central Television (CCTV)’s coverage of the story was shelved. and the journalist who traveled to Weifang is still being held there involuntarily. Gan Yuanchun wrote in a follow-up post, “Weifang: You think that by harmonizing [censoring] CCTV, you can cover up the truth about #UndergroundWaterPollution? And you’re still trying to help this kind of soulless company complete its IPO? You must be dreaming!!”

Though CCTV has not reported on the issue, party-line paper the People’s Daily posted on Weibo:

“Many regions have reported smog, and now there are tragic reports of underground water pollution. ‘Dumping wastewater underground,’ is an evil act; is it any different from killing future generations? We may be keeping silent for our own sake, and unable to say, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake: let the skies be clear again, let our earth and water be pure once more, tighten regulations, do not delay, for there is no time to waste; make great changes now, and there will be hope for the future. We can’t talk about a beautiful China without doing something to make China beautiful; we look forward to a wave of environmentalist action. Goodnight.”

Many posts by news organizations and independent journalists on the pollution and its cover-up drew hundreds of comments, most by netizens urging them to continue to speak out. With ongoing discontent over air pollution in China, as well as fears about whether radiation from North Korea’s nuclear tests will affect the country, news of the government covering up intentional pollution by companies is especially provocative.

The anti-pollution campaign orchestrated by Deng Fei and increasing demand online for stricter environmental regulations mark yet another instance of social media users identifying institutional problems by sharing individual observations. Recently, Weibo users tackled corruption in the military by crowdsourcing pictures of luxury vehicles driven by members of China’s People’s Liberation Army.  Now that the groundwater pollution story has broken on Weibo, despite Shandong officials’ attempts to hush it up, it’s the government’s turn to respond. It remains to be seen whether those reporting on the pollution or those causing it will be on the receiving end of the crackdown.

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.