It is easy to think of China only in terms of its staggering pace of economic growth or in its dominant position as producer or consumer of just about every metal going. But it is behind the scenes that China’s position as a developing country becomes so painfully obvious. Lacking widespread application of laws and environmental controls, metal production in China, certainly at the small to medium scale, so often resembles the west a hundred years ago. This isn’t to denigrate the Chinese. China is a vast country in which the application of central state laws are at the whim of local officials. Corruption is still widespread. Poverty drives workers to ignore even personal safety measures and unions are non-existent. The authorities in Beijing try to apply environmental and health and safety laws but so often the application of them at the local level is impeded by local interests. A Chinese publication, Xinhua News Agency, reported statistics from a ministry showing that last year, a total of 2,183 heavy metal companies were punished for illegal operations and 231 were shut down. Yet still the news feeds seem to report almost weekly about some new case. This week a Reuters report said over 80 children in a poor corner of southwestern China have been poisoned by lead from illegal smelters. Tests showed at least 84 children from Heqing county in Yunnan province had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. Routine health tests in the area between July 2 and July 16 showed a cluster of 39 children under 14 with lead-poisoning, prompting further testing which revealed another 45 victims. It is not clear if the poisoning has come from inhaled lead fumes from small-scale illegal gold smelting workshops, or if they had been poisoned after solid waste was dumped in fields. The Heqing government said it had cleared up 4,300 tons of smelting wastes and shut down more than 200 illegal workshops but still major poisoning problems arise.
Bloomberg reported that tests last year in Henan, China’s largest lead-producing province, diagnosed 1,008 children with excessive lead in their blood, with Henan Yuguang Gold and Lead Co., China’s largest lead maker, closing an outdated plant there in October. Blood tests conducted last year in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, found 200 children had excessive levels of lead.
And it is not just humans who suffer. A leak at a plant in Eastern China’s Fujian province owned by Zijin Mining Group Co., China’s largest gold producer, killed more than 1,500 metric tons of fish in a local river this month.
It is easy for us in the west to say lax environmental standards contribute to lower costs of production and unfair competition but the issue is a lot more serious than that. Welcome as employment opportunities are if the government doesn’t get to grips with the strict application of environmental laws and ensure health and safety standards are vigorously applied there will be social backlash against metals processing. In the past, communities have seen the citing of a new smelter in their town as a beneficial source of employment. Beijing may not pay much attention to international condemnation but they have shown themselves acutely sensitive to domestic unrest. China’s continued prosperity depends on heavy manufacturing for the foreseeable future, prosperity and social unrest make uncomfortable bedfellows.