Echoing the peasant revolutions that led to the creation of modern China, farmers are rising up against the factories they accuse of contaminating rivers and destroying their livelihoods.
"In 2005, China was shaken by 51,000 pollution-triggered "public disturbances" -- demonstrations or riots of a hundred or more people protesting the contamination of rivers and farms -- according to the government's own statistics. (The real figures are almost certainly higher.) The Ministry of Public Security has ranked pollution among the top five threats to China's peace and stability.
One hotbed of such environmental unrest is Hunan Province, a former stronghold of Sun Yat-Sen's anti-imperial forces and the birthplace of Mao Zedong. This southern province has twice nurtured agitated peasant movements that have risen against the central government.
In 2001, a chemical processing plant opened less than a mile from [Chen Li Feng's] farm...By 2003, Chen and other villagers had compiled a troubling list of problems that had materialized since the factory opened. Dozens of people reported stomach pains, migraine headaches, and vomiting. Local media reported ten new cases of cancer among people who lived within a mile and a half of the factory -- an alarming number for a village of only a few hundred people.
Farmers watched their cattle die and rice yields decline. Chen and other villagers believed that wastewater discharged from the factory had poisoned the Xiang River, a source for drinking water and irrigation, and that the dark smoke rising from the plant's chimney had fouled the air.
Having exhausted peaceful channels, the villagers turned to force. Twice in the summer of 2004, more than a hundred residents marched onto factory grounds to disconnect its electricity. Chen Li Fang organized the second effort. She split the villagers into two groups, with the first storming the front gates, the second approaching from behind. The manager cowered in his office and called the police. Someone ripped the power-supply unit off the wall. The factory was shut down for three days before the equipment could be replaced.
...At the moment, China's officials face what may appear to them to be an uneasy choice: allow citizens to use [environmental protection] laws to their fullest extent, or risk a precipitous rise in protests."