Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is home to a thriving teahouse culture. But there’s more than tea brewing here. The tradition of chatting away the day with friends has, for centuries, made it easier for folks here to gossip and talk about politics and current events. Lately, the talk has been about air pollution.
“There are more people and more cars and more industry," complains Wu Youqiong, who sits and drinks tea with her family, "The pollution is bad for all of us – we all have lungs. The government needs to do something about it.”
In the past year, one of the most notorious projects in the history of China’s oil industry began operation outside the city. It’s a $6 billion petrochemical plant run by China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s largest state-owned oil company, and it has become a focus of a corruption investigation into the family of Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief. "The people here didn’t want the plant built, but they built it anyway," says Wu, "It’s going to harm everyone’s health. It’s something people should protest."
The people of Chengdu tried.
Last year, many here among the city’s 14 million residents planned a weekend public demonstration to protest the plant. When the local government found out, police detained organizers, sent out text messages warning people to stay inside, and the government required people to work on the Saturday of the protest, forcing high school and university students to remain in class through the weekend.
Officials are still paranoid– within minutes of arriving in Chengdu, I call a source who had agreed to talk with me about how the pollution affects her family. She abruptly cancels our interview – she’s being interrogated by police officers who had intercepted our emails and text messages. The next day, I hire a driver to take me to Pengzhou, the site of the petrochemical plant. It's a refinery that’s as large as the nearby city. In a small village in the plant’s shadow, I stop to talk to a farmer. "My home was destroyed for the plant last August," a woman tells me, "The sky here is always polluted now. The plant has had a huge impact on our health."
Before I can get her name, a man pulls up beside me on a motorcycle and asks me what I’m doing. He glares at the woman and she dashes off.
I tell him I’m a journalist and I’m talking to people about pollution. “There’s no pollution here,” he says.
Before I can ask him more questions, he makes a call on his cellphone. A minute later, a group of thugs show up. I hop in the car, and we drive to another location where I again begin talking with people, but the men catch up to me and intimidate them, too. Before long, I'm being chased out of Pengzhou by six cars; a motorcade of thugs with a foreign journalist in the lead.
Back safely in Chengdu, I speak with Jin Lei and Guo Xiaohong, a husband and wife who are concerned about the plant. "A lot of people are concerned about the plant," says Guo, who used to work for an environmental NGO in Chengdu. "but people are no longer willing to do anything about it – they don’t think they can change the situation."
Jin and Guo’s two daughters are playing in their living room. A couple of years ago, when the pollution in Chengdu was particularly bad, the couple had to bring both girls to the emergency room several times for breathing problems. “The pollution that year was just as bad as Beijing’s," remembers Jin. "I used to train for triathalons, but I’ve stopped that because my bronchitis was so bad.”
Back in 2005 when Jin and Guo were studying at elite schools in Beijing, they were among a group of students permitted to attend a talk by Al Gore. He was visiting Beijing to talk about his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. After the talk, officials allowed only one question from students.
Jin raised his hand and Gore called on him.
“I asked Mr. Gore what can we, as normal people, do to help China’s environment?" remembers Jin. "He said, ‘You are the representatives of China’s young generation, and you must have faith that things can change. If you don’t have faith, then future generations will have less faith.’”
Jin and Guo have now applied this message to how they live in Chengdu. The couple uses reclaimed water to help grow their urban garden, and they’ve taught their daughters to use bath water to help flush the toilet. “Whatever mandate the government hands down that will help protect our environment, we will support it 100 percent," says Jin. "As a country, we must work together. Otherwise, we’ll all pay the price.”
We must have faith, he says, echoing what Al Gore told him - that things can change. But sometimes in China, it’s hard to keep that faith: Just two hours after I leave Jin and Guo’s home, the police show up to intimidate them, too.