Article image
Locals say they don't trust the local government or the company to protect them from lead poisoning (Image by Bao Xiaodong/Southern Weekend)

Villagers from the township of Gangkou in Jiangxi province, south-east China, have smashed up a new lead recycling plant which was due to begin operating.

Unconvinced by reassurances from the owners and local government that there would be no pollution, the residents were adamant that the plant would have to move. When no acceptable solution was offered, they resorted to violence.

Chaos at the factory gates

It has now emerged that at about 10am on August 11, more than 100 villagers from Gangkou forced their way into the residential area of the Yiyang Xingwang Industries complex, smashing up the canteen and dormitories.

At about 2pm the same day the villagers gathered in the factory proper, destroying production and office equipment.

At 4pm county officials, the police and local cadres arrived on the scene and appealed for the villagers to leave. But the villagers were not satisfied. At a meeting that evening several of them decided to return to the factory the following day. The local government was tipped off and when Zhang Mingxiang and 200 other villagers arrived at the factory gates they found themselves facing a police cordon – Zhang estimates the police were at least 100 strong.

On August 13 there were constant propaganda announcements, saying the factory would not cause pollution. Zhang took a Southern Weekend reporter to an under-construction building, locked the door and gave an interview.

“Everyone wanted to get back in and keep smashing the place up, but the police wouldn’t let us in. We were all just stuck there at the gate,” Zhang explained. “I saw one tall policeman knock over a woman. There was a lot of people and it was crowded, and the woman got a little hurt, then people were shouting ‘they’re beating people, they’re beating people.’ And so everyone stormed forward.”

A skirmish broke out, with the villagers throwing rocks and smashing up police vehicles. The locals report police used electric batons and truncheons, while the Yiyang government said that the police had no electric batons or other weapons, but that some villagers were wielding clubs, hammers, shovels and rocks.

Villagers say the police injured several people during the chaos, while the government said over ten police were injured, with one officer needing thirty stitches to the head. A police vehicle was overturned, with windows smashed in six more and also in a forestry service fire engine: “Some of the police and most of the injured villagers were hurt by rocks thrown by the villagers. Some villagers fell and were hurt as the police were clearing the scene.”
History of pollution“If we really do cause pollution the villagers can deal with it through legal channels; if they just smash things up like this nobody’s going to want to invest here,” Chen Shengjie, chairman of Xingwang Industries, spoke angrily on August 14. He’s been working in the lead recycling trade since 1986.

The Yiyang government persuaded the company to set up here on a plot of 80 or 90 mu (6 hectares), with total investment of 200 million yuan (US$33 million). The factory would recycle and sell metals and process storage batteries.

The company had originally started up in the Zhimin district of Yiyang Industrial Zone. Zhimin was known as a centre for the metals industry, but since 2010 firms there have been shut down or relocated. Xingwang Industries was relocated in 2010.  

The official story is that the zone did not fit in with new urban plans. But four years later there are still a number of companies still at work in Zhimin.

Shu Jiefu, head of the Yiyang environmental supervision team, said that the relocation was related to a major case of child lead poisoning: in 2010, 200 children in a village near Zhimin were found to have high levels of lead in their blood. Sixty were suffering moderate lead poisoning, and seven severe poisoning.

Lead, a heavy metal, affects the nervous system. Excess levels can damage health, particularly intellectual and physical development in children. Lead poisoning is diagnosed if 100mg or more of lead is present per litre of blood.

Two lead recycling plants were found to be responsible, and both were shut down. Xingwang Industries was also relocated to the village of Pengjia in Gangkou, where it is today.

Shu Jiefu recalled that the company suggested several sites, none of which met environmental requirements. Ultimately it chose the current location, which was determined by experts to be safe. There were no residences within the plant’s buffer zone, and the environmental assessment body and the government both measured the distance to the nearest village, Pengjia, at just over 1 kilometres.

In September 2013, Chen Shengjie signed a deal with the Yiyang government, and construction on the plant stated the next month. To meet environmental requirements environmental protection equipment was purchased and both county officials and Chen himself promised there would be no pollution. “The environmental protection equipment and infrastructure cost 60 million to 70 million yuan. We wouldn’t need to release any waste water, we’d just recycle it, and gas emissions would be up to standard,” Chen explained. The plant ran on a trial basis for 28 days, but so far has not officially started operations.

Scared of lead

The villagers recall two cases of child lead poisoning. As well as the 2010 incidence mentioned earlier, in 2012, 30 children from the village of Chaoshuiyan were found to have varying levels of lead in their blood, with some classed as suffering from lead poisoning. Media reports at the time said that parents who took their children to hospital for testing were refused.
In Gangkou these cases are well remembered.
The latest protests started when villagers learned from the Internet that lead can be poisonous and so took their children for testing.

Peng Xia, a villager, explained: “we found over one hundred children had high levels of lead. The doctor said it might have been a nearby factory, and that one year of production could be a danger for the next decade.”

Peng Xia pulled out five testing reports she had gathered, all showing lead levels of over 100mg/litre; one, belonging to a five month old girl, showed 419mg/litre. These all dated from July this year and were carried out at different hospitals: Yingtan, Yiwu, Nanjing and Hangzhou. They don’t trust the local hospitals.

That is the real cause of the attack on the factory.

Prior to the attack each household put in 200 yuan (US$33) to fund petitioning trips to Gangkou township, Yiyang county seat, Shangrao city and Nanchang and Beijing, to call for the Xingwang plant to be relocated. They were unsuccessful.

In May 2014 the Yiyang government and Party committee formed a working group to deal with the petitioning villagers. A number of trips to Gangkou were made, meetings were held with village cadres, Party members and public representatives, and door-to-door visits were made.

Shu Jiefu said that villagers stopped looking at the legality of the company or the environmental measures taken, saying that “if it’s legal and doesn’t pollute, it can just move elsewhere.”

The villagers admit that the Yiyang government did send a team to talk to them: “but they didn’t solve the problem. We want the plant shut down, we don’t want it here.”

The villagers are already living in fear. Some are planning to send their children away to school. The owner of one clothing workshop said only seven or eight of his original staff of twenty are left: mothers are worried for their children’s health and have gone to the city of Yiwu to find work.

The Yiyang education authorities and teachers also formed a working group to persuade parents to educate their children locally. Peng Xia has two younger brothers aged 12 and 13, and the family had put down 300 yuan deposits at a school in the Yiyang county seat. But recently the school returned the money, saying the authorities had warned them not to collect deposits and to return any that had been paid. “They [the working group] told us not to make a fuss, and that there wasn’t any pollution. But we don’t believe it. Doctors, experts, the Internet, they all say lead is harmful.”