The Chinese government leadership have a real problem. Technology is giving people and local groups more power to look into issues and to get the results of their investigations to a lot of people in a hurry.
The latest is a report that students at the Changzhou Foreign Language School in Changzhou in Jiangsu province were falling ill at an abnormal rate.
Chinese children ‘fall sick at new school’ (BBC – April 18, 2016)
The Chinese authorities are investigating reports that hundreds of children have become sick after their new school opened next to a former industrial site.
Nearly 500 Chinese children are reported to have developed dermatitis, blood abnormalities, leukaemia and lymphoma thought to be a result of air, soil and water toxins at their new school.
Now, government officials report there is nothing to the reports that reports the soil near the school tests chemical levels at 95,000 times the national limit.
Yep, nothing to see here.
The initial report — by state-run media — caused an uproar among Internet users. And a series of articles outside China.
- South China Morning Post: Hundreds of pupils at school near toxic site in east China fall ill, some with cancer, state TV reports
- New York Times: Chinese Parents Outraged After Illnesses at School Are Tied to Pollution.
Lack of concern about where or how construction takes place is a common issue in China. And with no method to keep an eye on the government — freedom of information laws or an independent media or opposition parties — there appears little people can do except pass information by the Internet or mobile phone texts.
Those Chinese residents able to breach the Great Firewall would have been able to read the two stories mentioned above from Hong Kong and the US. They also would have been able to read another SCMP piece on how more than 80 percent of the country’s groundwater is contaminated and unfit for human consumption.
While the government leadership officially says it wants to dig out corruption and that media outlets have a role in that campaign, it is also the official policy that the media must first serve the (Communist) Party, the government, then the people. So if the Party or government leadership decide that potentially contaminated soil might be the cause of abnormal illnesses among school children AND if that situation makes the Party or government leaders look bad, then the contamination must not really exist.
So now the official media are reporting that three months of testing has shown contamination levels are within normal limits.
And that, of course, begs the question: What are normal limits?
Looking at how China deals with air pollution we can see that their limits leave something to be desired.
The World Health Organization puts on upper limit of Particulate Matter 2.5 (particulates less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) at 35 micrograms per cubic meter. The U.S. Environmental Administration put the upper limit of “good” at 50 micrograms per cubic meter. China puts it upper limit of “good” at 75 micrograms per cubic meter.
These higher levels allowed the Chinese government to officially say Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities had a lot of “good” days. However, even Chinese researchers found something was wrong. The catalyst for real change came after the U.S. embassy in Beijing started taking its own pollution data and posting it online.
At first the URL — http://beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn/aqirecent3.html — was blocked by the Great Firewall of China. And the Chinese government complained the U.S. was interfering in China’s internal affairs. Eventually — and with the Olympics coming up — the government relented and once again allowed access to the site.
Chinese researchers have begun to look at the government data and the US embassy data to see just how bad pollution is and if it is improving. (The good news/bad news is that some changes for the good are taking place.)
The problem is that China still uses levels of “acceptance” that are way higher than the WHO and other industrial nations. This practice puts people’s lives in danger. And with the government tightening its grip on the news media, the people will have little chance of learning about how much danger.
And yes, Americans need to know about these situations because it can directly impact the quality of goods sold to the United States. And because more and more Americans are moving to China to work, study and vacation. We just have this weird idea that we should know the health risks of a place we are about to visit.