Patrick Brown: China's gathering environmental storm

Earthquakes, polluted air, cancer clusters near industrialized centres. China seems to be undergoing a scourge of almost biblical proportions, Patrick Brown writes. And don't think its people — or its new leaders — haven't noticed.

Earthquakes, polluted air, cancer clusters may threaten the ruling regime's 'mandate of heaven'

A survivor of Saturday's earthquake in a remote section of Sichuan province, in southwestern China, sits outside a makeshift tent waiting for help. (Aly Song/Reuters)

China's new leaders are grappling with their first natural disaster — the earthquake that struck Lushan county, a remote mountainous area of Sichuan province, early Saturday morning, killing about 200 people and injuring many thousands.

In office for only five weeks, the new leadership seems determined to do a better job than the last one, and for good reason.

The relationship between the country's rulers and the natural world looms large in traditional Chinese thought. Dynasties have risen and fallen on their handling of things like irrigation and flood control, and natural disasters have been interpreted almost as nature's commentary on the quality of governance.

It was no surprise then that, within hours of Saturday's quake, Premier Li Keqiang arrived at the epicentre by helicopter to begin sympathizing with victims and supervising the rescue effort.

Li's predecessor, Wen Jiabao, was criticized for arriving late at some disasters, and often ridiculed as "China's best actor" for the theatrical tears he would shed when he did arrive.

In 2008, the image of the ruling Communist Party was gravely damaged by the much stronger earthquake that killed about 70,000 people in Sichuan.

It struck at two in the afternoon on a school day, and thousands of children lost their lives in buildings that had been shoddily built by unscrupulous construction firms in league with corrupt officials. Relief funds found their way into the same greedy pockets.

The only people to have been punished were not the culprits, but those brave enough to speak out and call for an accounting for the young lives lost.

One of them, the environmentalist writer Tan Zuoren, was sentenced to five years for "inciting subversion of state power."

Ironically, he's serving his time in Ya'an, at the heart of Saturday's earthquake. If his cell has a window he might have caught a glimpse of Premier Li's entourage inspecting the town.

The 'Mandate of Heaven'

Earthquakes, floods, droughts and other natural disasters have a special place in China’s history because of the ancient concept that a dynasty's right to rule depended on the "Mandate of Heaven."

Today, as China's leaders are subject to public scrutiny as never before, that concept is still relevant, particularly when it comes to disaster relief and environmental degradation.

The explosion of Twitter-like micro-blogging has given ordinary Chinese a new and growing sense that they have a right to more accurate and timely information — and the right to pass judgment on officials who were previously beyond criticism.

The opportunity to rate the new leadership's handling of a natural disaster comes at a time when people are also wondering how the authorities will tackle some epic man-made environmental problems.

The past five weeks have seen a cascade of revelations about the scale of degradation resulting from 35 years of single-minded economic development.

Here are just a few of the issues that have dominated the Chinese internet in the five weeks since President Xi Jinping and Premier Li began their 10-year mandate in March:

  • A flotilla of 16,000 dead pigs drifted down the river that provides drinking water for China's largest city, Shanghai. Officials say there was no threat to health, but a leading internet theory held that farmers were dumping diseased pigs that would otherwise have been sold for meat prior to new regulations.
  • Disappearing rivers. A three-year national water census revealed that the number of rivers with a catchment area greater than 100 square kilometres has dropped by 28,000 since the 1990s.
  • In announcing a plan to control the use of 58 industrial chemicals, the government acknowledged the existence of "cancer villages" near factories. Activists have estimated there may be hundreds of such clusters, caused by pollution. Deaths from cancer in China have risen by more than 80 per cent since the 1970s.
  • Official newspapers published an international study estimating that outdoor air pollution caused 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. People are left to speculate what the figure is today, now that levels of the most dangerous fine particles in Beijing are commonly more than 30 times the World Health Organization's recommended standard.

How dynasties fall

For modern historians, the collapse of the great Ming Dynasty in the 17th century is seen as resulting from many factors, including catastrophic changes in the world silver market.

Health workers lower dead pigs into a processing pit where the carcasses will be fermented into organic fertilizer near Zhuji in eastern China. Over a two-week period in mid-March, nearly 16,000 pig carcasses were found floating in the nearby river system, or dumped by farmers by the side of the road for reasons that have never been fully explained. (Associated Press)

Chinese who lived through those chaotic times also saw many causes, but the general view is that they felt that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven, as demonstrated by the results of two major disasters: devastating short-term climate change known as the Little Ice Age, and the Shaanxi earthquake of 1556, which killed more than 800,000 people.

In modern times, many Chinese saw a connection between Mao Zedong's death in 1976 and the Tangshan earthquake, which killed a quarter of a million people six weeks earlier.

The Communist Party clings to the rhetoric of Mao's revolution as the foundation of its one-party rule. But for the past 35 years it has staked its legitimacy on the free market and a policy of breakneck development and relentless economic growth.

Recent weeks, however, have seen growing and unprecedented public concern about the price being paid in poisoned water, polluted soil, unbreathable air and contaminated food.

(In Hong Kong, retired customs agents have been called back to work to enforce a ban on the smuggling of baby milk, while retailers as far away as Britain and Australia have been asked to ration sales of baby milk powder because of bulk purchases for export to China. The reason: Chinese mothers still don't trust the Chinese product that was the subject of a deadly contamination scandal in 2008.)

President Xi Jinping has already suggested that he and the party will be judged on whether he keeps his promise to tackle pandemic corruption, a leading cause of public discontent.

Earthquake relief and reconstruction will be a huge test of that promise.

In the longer term, though, it may be that the gathering storm of discontent over the environment is an even greater threat to the party's Mandate of Heaven.