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KAI RYSSDAL:An enormous lead smelter is set to reopen later this month in central China. It, and a series of others across the country, were shut down last summer. Thousands of children had been found with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. At the time, the government in Beijing promised compensation to the victims and punishment for the offenders.
We sent Marketplace’s Scott Tong to Hunan Province to see how that’s working out.
Scott Tong: Six months ago in the Wugang district of Hunan, parents were mad. 1,300 local kids were found with significant lead in their blood, from an illegal smelting plant that spewed soot in the air, and dumped heavy metal waste in the ground water. At the time, the families blocked the main road. They flipped a police car, and tore off the door to the local police station and flung it in the river.
Now, though, the fight seems to have gone out of the villagers. Parent Hu Xianghong’s two-year-old son is one of the sickest.
Hu Xianghong: The government gave us about a hundred dollars, paid for one treatment and that’s it. The drugs are too expensive, so he’s not taking any more.
Hu says her toddler has a cold all the time; he doesn’t eat much these days. Neighboring villager Qiu Shunping also notices a difference in his son.
Qiu Shunping: He doesn’t want to study. Before, his grades were good, but now he’s not motivated.
For these children, the impact of lead exposure may have just begun. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control links lead poisoning to brain damage and compromised motor and cognitive functions. Even mild exposure can have lasting effect on attention span and IQ, that’s according to the National Institutes of Health in the U.S.
But the local Wugang government argues the kids have been treated and they’re healthy. Deputy Mayor Lei Jiaming.
Deputy Mayor Lei Jiaming: Lead can be eliminated from the body. It’s not like what you said, that it’s a lifetime thing. Children have recovered well. We now have good social order.
Political scientist Dali Yang at the University of Chicago says local Chinese officials often downplay incidents, to protect their future prospects in the Communist party. He says officials get promoted, based on local economic growth and based on social stability.
Dali Yang: There is very little tolerance for instability. And as a result, officials really take excessive measures to try to keep the appearance of stability.
There have been at least five industrial lead scandals in China since last summer. Farmers in Hunan say the government ignores their concerns and then violators get off light.
Sound of someone knocking on a metal gate
At the offending smelting plant, no one answers a knock on the metal gate; it’s been shut down since August. Back then, the boss was said to be on the run. But now, villagers say he’s back on the streets, behind the wheel of his SUV with no license plates, hobnobbing with politicians.
Villagers: I saw the boss, saw him with my own eyes. He owns several coal mines. Did they jail him? No, the government protects him.
We asked government spokesman Lei Jiamin if the boss is indeed walking free.
Lei Jiamin: We are following the legal procedure in accordance with the law. The boss is cooperating with the government.
There are seven village people who have been locked up: Not the operators of the plant, but parents who protested last summer. Each was fined about $2,000 to get released, about one year’s salary in these parts. One parent, Li Yue Lun, remains behind bars, says his grandfather.
Grandfather Li: We don’t have the money. I was detained, too. I went to the township three times to demand answers about the smelter. I got nothing, so I kicked the gate. Then, they locked me up.
If the government jailed villagers to intimidate the masses, it may be working. Local parent Hu Xianghong has no more plans for civil disobedience.
Hu: The government detained people. We regular people dare not say anything now. We just listen to whatever they say.
As we leave, one father promises to update us on what happens next. If anything does.
In Hunan, central China, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.
Ryssdal: Staff researcher Cecilia Chen contributed to that story for us.
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