ZHOUTIE, China — You smell the lake before you see it, an overwhelming stench like rotten eggs mixed with manure.
The visuals are just as bad, the shore caked with toxic blue-green algae. Farther out, where the algae is more diluted but equally fueled by pollution, it swirls with the currents, a vast network of green tendrils across the surface of Tai Lake.
Such pollution problems are now widespread in China after three decades of unbridled economic growth. But what’s surprising about Tai Lake is the money and attention that have been spent on the problem and how little either has accomplished. Some of the country’s highest-ranking leaders, including Premier Wen Jiabao, have declared it a national priority. Millions of dollars have been poured into the cleanup.
And yet the lake is still a mess. The water remains undrinkable, the fish nearly gone, the fetid smell lingering over villages.
Tai Lake is the embodiment of China’s losing fight against pollution. This summer, the government said that, despite stricter rules, pollution is rising again across the country in key categories such as emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. Just months before, the government had revealed that water pollution was more than twice as severe as previous official figures had shown.
The story of Tai Lake is a story of high-level promises and lower-level reneging, of economic interests superseding environmental ones. And it is an illustration of China’s awkward relationship with environmental activists, who challenge the government’s authority but are often the loudest force pushing its new environmental priorities on the local level.
No one knows this story better than Wu Lihong.
For almost two decades, Wu — a peasant living along the lake, a three-hour drive west of Shanghai — waged a one-man campaign to clean it up. He kept track of the thousands of factories springing up along its shores and took pictures of the untreated waste they discharged into the lake. He mailed water samples to inspectors, called TV stations and spoke out in the face of threats from factory bosses and local leaders.
His actions cost him his job, threatened his marriage and landed him in prison for three years. He returned home this spring to find the lake virtually unchanged. Now, with no job prospects and few friends willing to risk a visit, he spends much of his time alone at home, mulling over what he has sacrificed — whether it was worth it, and whether he should continue.
To hear Wu’s story firsthand is to witness the paranoia he now lives in.
A short, baby-faced man, Wu, 42, assumes his cellphone is tapped and prefers meeting strangers in obscure spots outside town. After agreeing to take a reporter to his home, Wu pulls up his shorts to reveal a two-inch scar on his inner thigh. He said he got it a few weeks ago by the lake when two thugs attacked him with a knife. He points to rounder scars along his arm and his hands — cigarette burns, he said, from police interrogations.
While he was in prison, authorities put his wife and daughter under 24-hour surveillance. Shortly before Wu’s release, the guards in front of his house were replaced by three traffic cameras erected on the single-lane road leading to his farmhouse.
His environmental work started in the early 1990s, when he began noticing foul smells from the lake he grew up on. Wu, the son of farm peasants, was working at the time as a salesman for a sound-barrier manufacturer.
After he started complaining, he and his wife lost their jobs. Thugs smashed in the windows of their house. Local police tried, unsuccessfully, to arrest him on a spectrum of charges.
“At first, there were other villagers reporting the pollution, too,” said Han Yaobing, 60, who was one of them. “But everyone gave up under the pressure of authorities. He was the only one left.”
After Chinese and foreign media picked up his story, Wu became a national hero and by 2005 was being praised by Chinese and international organizations. That year, China’s highest-ranking legislative body, the National People’s Congress, declared him one of China’s top 10 environmental activists and flew him to a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
When he returned home, his wife, Xu Jiehua — who had kept quiet through years of harassment — finally begged him to stop.
Because Wu was born in the Year of the Monkey, she gave him a carving of three monkeys on a string, each with a hand covering the eyes, ears and mouth. From now on, she told him, you see, hear and report no evil.
But Wu didn’t stop. One look at the lake and his anger just bubbled up again.
For years he had criticized only local authorities for the pollution. And for the most part, China’s central government stayed out of the fray.
All that changed in 2007, when — just two years after Beijing lauded him for his work trying to protect the lake — Wu learned that the central government planned to award his city the title of “National Model City for Environmental Protection,” praising the very local officials Wu had fought for years.
Wu was furious. He started gathering more evidence, telling friends he planned to sue the central government over the title. Within weeks, he was arrested.
The exact charges changed several times, and most were ultimately dropped. In the end, Wu’s conviction on two charges of blackmail and fraud relied heavily on his confession, which Wu says he signed after being hung by the arms for five days and beaten with branches.
Local officials, who deny torturing Wu, say his prosecution was not retaliation for his environmental work.
Just weeks after his arrest in 2007, everything Wu had warned about suddenly came true.
Pollutants in the lake produced record amounts of toxic algae. Local authorities were forced to declare the lake undrinkable, leaving more than 2 million people without potable water. The price of bottled water shot up sixfold.
As Tai Lake became a national scandal, hundreds of industrial plants were shut down, local officials were dismissed, and billions of dollars were committed to clean it up. It became part of the new nationwide push to tackle air quality, forest preservation and water pollution.
Progress since then, however, has proved elusive. By some standards, the lake has improved. The level of nitrogen and phosphorus — ingredients for algae growth — have decreased slightly. By other measures, such as overall water quality, the lake has gotten worse.
According to government statistics in July, 85 percent of the lake was put in the worst possible category for water quality, unsuitable for drinking, irrigation or even recreation.
Across the country, modest environmental progress in recent years has seen similar signs of worsening as environmental concerns have taken a back seat in the recent the economic recovery.
In the face of this bleak future, Wu now questions whether he sacrificed everything for nothing.
“Maybe I should have just focused on making a living, raising my family,” he says in his living room, holding his wife’s string of carved monkeys. “But this is where I live. A man cannot just run away to Shangri-La while his home is ruined.”
Across the room, Wu’s wife says little.
Because Wu can’t find a job, she now works two — one at a wool factory and the second, ironically, at a chemical plant on Tai Lake.
It is, she later explains, the only place hiring these days.