China's environmental and consequent public health problems have been growing since widespread industrialization hit the country in the 1980's. The central government talks a good line, but provides little support and few incentives for local officials who are actually trying to clean things up. The rewards are all for higher production.
GUANGMENGYING, China - Wang Lincheng began his accounting at the brick hut of a farmer. Dead of cancer, he said flatly, his dress shoes sinking in the mud. Dead of cancer, he repeated, glancing at another vacant house.
Mr. Wang, head of the Communist Party in this village, ignored a June rain and trudged past mud-brick houses, ticking off other deaths, other empty homes. He did not seem to notice a small cornfield where someone had dug a burial mound of fresh red dirt.
Finally, he stopped at the door of a sickened young mother. Her home was beside a stream turned greenish-black from dumping by nearby factories - polluted water that had contaminated drinking wells. Cancer had been rare when the stream was clear, but last year cancer accounted for 13 of the 17 deaths in the village.
"All the water we drink around here is polluted," Mr. Wang said. "You can taste it. It's acrid and bitter. Now the victims are starting to come out, people dying of cancer and tumors and unusual causes....Pollution is pervasive in China, as anyone who has visited the smog-choked cities can attest. On the World Bank's list of 20 cities with the worst air, 16 are Chinese. But leaders are now starting to clean up major cities, partly because urbanites with rising incomes are demanding better air and water. In Beijing and Shanghai, officials are forcing out the dirtiest polluters to prepare for the 2008 Olympics.
By contrast, the countryside, home to two-thirds of China's population, is increasingly becoming a dumping ground. Local officials, desperate to generate jobs and tax revenues, protect factories that have polluted for years. Refineries and smelters forced out of cities have moved to rural areas. So have some foreign companies, to escape regulation at home.
The losers are hundreds of millions of peasants already at the bottom of a society now sharply divided between rich and poor. They are farmers and fishermen who depend on land and water for their basic existence.