In China the Whistle Blower is not the Enemy of…, but Leads the People

Unlike Ibsen’s famous Enemy of the People, in which the town pharmacist blows the whistle on chemical pollutant of local “health water,” and is jeered from community conversations, the folks of China’s Ningbo City welcome the messengers of bad-news and rally to stop the bad guys from implementing expansion of a petrochemical plant.

 

 Officials in the coastal city of Ningbo, China, promised on Sunday night to halt the expansion of a petrochemical plant after thousands of demonstrators clashed with the police during three days of protests that spotlighted the public’s mounting discontent with industrial pollution.

 …The protests, which began last week when farmers blocked a road near the refinery, grew over the weekend as thousands of students and middle-class residents converged on a downtown square carrying handmade banners and wearing surgical masks painted with skull and bones.

On Saturday, the demonstrations turned violent when riot police fired tear gas and began to beat and drag away protesters. At one point, according to people who were there, marchers tossed bricks and bottles at the police. At least 100 people were detained, according to some estimates, although most were later released.

The project, an $8.8 billion expansion of a refinery owned by the state-run behemoth Sinopec, was eagerly backed by the local government, which has been promoting a vast industrial zone outside Ningbo, a city of 3.4 million people in Zhejiang Province. Residents were particularly unnerved by one major component of the project: the production of paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical known as PX that is a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of polyester, paints and plastic bottles. Many residents contend that the concentration of polluting factories in the Ningbo Chemical Industrial Zone has led to a surge in cancer and other illnesses.

Protesters against the Sinopec petrochemical plant in Ningbo, China, October, 2012

This is not the first confrontation Chinese citizens have fought back against local boosters and party chief’s planning chemical pollution at the expense of the population.

A PX plant was stopped in Xiamen in 2007, another was challenged in Chengdu in 2008 and  in Dalian in 2011,

An Enemy of the People — Where Was He in the Drug Compounding Scandal?

I watched Henrik Ibsen’s 1888 blockbuster play, Enemy of the People, last night in the 1971 BBC version, having been reminded of it in a book about whistle blowers and the risks they run. There is of course the 1966 Arthur Miller version available, the 1978 version with Steve McQueen in the role of the Enemy, and a new “jagged fist of a revival” playing on Broadway, but strangely — in a country so much embroiled in like issues for the last 30 years — the 124 year old “contemporary” play would not surface as a touchstone for most.

The chemist of a small town in Norway, always somewhat of a gadfly, comes upon the earth shaking discovery that the water being bottled in the town and shipped all over the country, and attracting visitors to the spa, is contaminated.  His seeing a pattern in illnesses of locals made him suspicious.  A finding by a test lab has confirmed.  He suspects the problem is effluent from the local tannery — owned by his father-in-law– seeping into the groundwater.

Beginning as an ebullient town crier —  “gee, aren’t you glad I found this out before more people get really sick”–  in the space of the short play he discovers he has not an ally in the world but his daughter, and to a lesser extent his wife.  The once promising muck-raking editor bows out because of financial compromises.  The head of the local trades-unions understands the potential loss of jobs if the news get out. His own brother, head of the plant, is his worst enemy, exploding personal, political and economic land mines every step of the way.

In the end, no one wants to hear his news.  He is declared an enemy of the people, his warnings ignored, and all but run out of business. The bottling plant goes on…doom, we are sure, is right around the corner.

Gee, how little times have changed!

 A federal inspection of a company whose tainted pain medicine has caused one of the worst public health drug disasters since the 1930s found greenish-yellow residue on sterilization equipment, surfaces coated with levels of mold and bacteria that exceeded the company’s own environmental limits, and an air-conditioner that was shut off nightly despite the importance of controlling temperature and humidity.

The findings, made public on Friday by the Food and Drug Administration, followed a report from Massachusetts regulators on Tuesday and offered disturbing new details in an emerging portrait of what went wrong inside the New England Compounding Center, the pharmacy at the heart of a national meningitisoutbreak in which 25 people have died, 313 more have fallen ill and as many as 14,000 people are believed to have been exposed.   NY Times

The corruption, which Dr.Thomas Stockman memorably describes as spreading like black-spot rose fungus over the whole population is still spreading.  The industries and their abettors in Congress and regulatory agencies always believe profits trump all other arguments.  Heck it’s a free market — you can chose to take that spinal injection, or not!

In this case, as is too familiar, no whistle blower stood. It took deaths and illness to blow loud enough to be heard.   There have been some brave men and women who have stood up over the decades but they are in short supply, intimidated by corporate bullies, the fear of ostracization — being declared An Enemy of the People– and afraid of losing their livelihood.

It’s hard to know how to counter the natural fear.  Perhaps a National Hall of Fame for Whistle Blowers, and of course life-long pensions from the companies whose practices they halted.

Back to the play.  The startling part, to me, was the abrupt John Galtian turn Stockman takes.  Ayn Rand hadn’t written her infamous book yet, but the notion of “supermen” who knew more than the lowly common herd did not begin with her.  Instead of organizing  education and opposition to the idiocy of the bottling plant owners –and a large part of the population– Stockman goes off on megalomaniac tear, condemning the townspeople to their faces –without explaining the issues and looking for allies– and proclaiming that rule by the uncommon and extraordinary man was the only way to peace and tranquility — Plato’s philosopher’s king.  There is a clear whiff of despotism in his attitude — however good his intentions.  It is little wonder that Hitler found Ibsen’s plays to be particularly instructive.

 

I am far from believing that all decisions made by the demos are sanctified by truth and as often, are arrived at flown in on a carpet of lies.  Nevertheless, Stockman’s hasty rejection of all decision making by other than the superior man tells us about the temperament of his creator and his lack of faith in facts, reason and persuasion.  Hell yes!  Do it my way!

Pollution: Chinese Riot; Americans Answer Opinion Polls

Copper and molybdenum are both naturally occurring elements on earth, and in our bodies.  In fact, too little of either can cause illness; as can too much.  When a giant factory comes to your town, the purpose of which is to grind, heat, combine, spin, stamp and otherwise manipulate thousands of tons of both items, you’d want to be much more than fairly certain everything was planned to a fare-thee-well.  One set of loose rivets, say, on an “air tight space” could release way more of the tiny 4 micron devils than the bodies of your children, friends and neighbors could tolerate. So the citizens of Shifang, in Sichuan province (just south of dead-center in the country) think.  We don’t know what was done prior to Tuesday, July 4, to get the facts, and be assured that facts were indeed facts, and not just corporate-government PR.  We assume frustration, uncertainty and fear reached a combustible mix not over-night but in the course of several weeks, if not months.

The Wall Street Journal, sure to be on the case where major capital is concerned, reports:

 Police in southwestern Sichuan province deployed tear gas against residents protesting a planned molybdenum copper plant in the latest case of environmental activism facing at times violent resistance from authorities.

… Details of the protest Monday in Shifang were murky. The search term “Shifang” quickly became the most-searched term on Sina’s popular Weibo microblogging service Monday afternoon, with users posting photos and videos they say were from the protest.

“Save our homes and environment for the next generation,” read one protest banner, according to a picture posted on Weibo.

According to one report:

Thousands of people — including high school students — concerned about pollution the plant would cause began to gather in front of the city government building and a public square Sunday night, and the protests turned bloody Monday afternoon after riot police moved in.

Public anger surged as Internet users circulated photos and videos of riot police using tear gas and batons to end the protests. Some Internet users said one protester had died.

“People are very upset. How could the police beat them?” said a 15-year-old middle school student surnamed Liu who did not join the protest.

While western media were reporting “cancellation” of the copper plant (Guardian, WaPo, AP) we who hold as an article of faith that human enterprise always pursues its own interests, think that cancel is too strong a word, not to say simply wrong; relocate where citizens are not so bold, buy off, pay off, give jobs, show studies, or simply wait it out all seem to be possible courses of action.

One connected fellow had this:

“It is the 4th of July — 236 years ago, America achieved independence and 236 years later, the Shifang people are fighting for their own rights and confronting the government,” said an unidentified microblogger who was quoted by Reuters on Wednesday.

“The government has repeatedly squandered the people’s patience. It is time for us to be independent.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, a recent poll shows Americans are less concerned about climate change than they were in 2007, down by about 50%.  Interestingly, while 18% called climate change their top concern, 29% say water and air pollution is number one.  Given that the EPA has been granted to leave to act on CO2 release as pollution maybe the fall off in concern isn’t THAT bad.  Bad enough, though.  Witness:

“I really don’t give it a thought,” said Wendy Stewart, a 46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed that political leaders don’t bring up the subject. “I’ve never heard them speak on global warming,” she said. “I’ve never heard them elaborate on it.

While we can, and should shake up the concern of our fellows, the lack of leadership from those in elected office and have the resources to know better, is obviously an enormous problem.