China’s Harrowing Cancer Villages

Note cancer sufferer Chen Guokang's shockingly yellowed eyes.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
It’s hard to ignore cancer sufferer Chen Guokang’s shockingly yellowed eyes.

The Chinese village of Yanglingang could perhaps stake a reasonable claim to being one of the deadliest places on Earth. After all, just waking up and breathing there is enough to potentially shorten one’s lifespan – this thanks to the settlement’s position close to a power plant, which ominously belches out clouds of fumes. Re-hydrating, too, seems equally unsafe, for a nearby paper mill tips its waste into the Yangtze river, the village’s principal source of water.

Industrial waste being pumped into the Yellow River.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Industrial waste water being pumped into the Yellow River

In fact, before the government allowed the establishment of a post-millennium industrial zone, Yanglingang’s river water had been clean. And yet now billowing smoke stacks blight the landscape, coating nearby structures in ash. Locals attempt to decontaminate their drinking water by means of alum powder, but this still doesn’t mask the chemical sensations on the palate.

Power plants surround Yanglingang village.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
A power station looms near the village of Yanglingang.

Yanglingang, meanwhile, has become one of many so-called “cancer villages” throughout the country, owing to its proliferation of people now affected by – or dying from – the illness. Incidences of the often-fatal condition have skyrocketed in Yanglingang, claiming the lives of a substantial amount of its population since 2003. It’s an alarming trend echoed across China, where the disease’s mortality tally has increased by an astonishing 80 percent during the past three decades or so.

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The area Cao is from has suffered hugely at the hands of pollution.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
The area that Cao Yungen is from has suffered hugely at the hands of pollution.

For example, the village of Dongxing, although around four hours to the north of Yanglingang, has suffered a similarly tragic fate. In the five years leading up to 2005, over 100 locals developed cancer – the result, it is believed, of them being in close proximity to the now-derelict Julong chemical facility. Despite the facility having been closed, however, the effects of its actions are seemingly still being felt. This is a plant, after all, that manufactured 2,200 tons of cancer-causing compounds annually.

Burning fabric outside a factory in Shaoxing.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Smouldering fabric outside a factory in Shaoxing

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The plant’s legacy of harm is thought to have begun after its opening in 2000, when Dongxing’s birdlife began to perish in substantial numbers. Meanwhile, the human inhabitants of the village were forced to cover their faces as they slept to protect themselves from smoke emitted by the facility. Parents whose children went to school close by – where the air smelled worryingly toxic – even moved them to the next town, fearful of the effects that the fumes would have on their offspring.

Family pay tribute to Shaoxing cancer victim Li Bairong.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
A family pay tribute to Shaoxing cancer victim Li Bairong.

Another gravely affected village is Wuli, a Hangzhou City suburb around 140 miles from Yanglingang. When the Nanyang chemical facility opened near there a little over two decades ago, Wuli’s watercourses became tarnished by grim-looking froth and unsightly dark streaks. And while this would be bad enough for the settlement’s 2,000-strong population, locals have also had to give up their land for industrial developments, with the people’s resulting compensation best described as paltry.

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Scorched textile remains blight what should be farmland in Shaoxing.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Textile remains blight the landscape in Shaoxing.

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Yanglingang’s plight, then, is far from an isolated example. Indeed, a nationwide study on the causes of death in China has shown that more rural parts of the country like Yanglingang, Dongxing and Wuli have seen increased mortality levels due to cancers of the liver and esophagus – among others – compared to Chinese cities.

Li Bairong in treatment
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
A man named Li Bairong in treatment

And while the effects of pollution are especially felt in villages such as Yanglingang, Dongxing and Wuli, they’re also to be found throughout China. One damning official statistic shows that almost three quarters of the country’s bodies of water are polluted. In fact, approaching half of all rivers and lakes surveyed by the Chinese government in 2011 have been deemed to hold water unsuitable for human contact.

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At the bedside of Li Bairong.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
At the bedside of Li Bairong

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It’s a subject, however, that Chinese governmental agencies have seemingly tried to sweep under the carpet. Even when the country’s “cancer villages” were eventually acknowledged by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection in February 2013, the reference was swiftly denounced as an error – and the ministry was disciplined.

Cao Yungen, of Sanjiang village, has been battling lung cancer in 2009.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Cao Yungen, of the village of Sanjiang, received a diagnosis of pulmonary cancer in 2009.

And not only was the ministry rebuked for letting its acknowledgement slip, but the statement was even publicly denounced by Chen Wanqing, a senior official from China’s country-wide cancer registry. “This is a medical issue,” he told a political meeting soon afterward. “It can’t be acknowledged from outside the Ministry of Health.” And with the Chinese public getting ever more outraged about rising industrial pollution, this de facto retraction likely added to their anger.

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More chemical waste flowing into the Yellow River.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
More chemical waste pouring into the Yellow River

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In some cases, however, fury has been replaced by resignation. “No matter how much we talk about this,” Dongxing villager Shu Qichang told The Guardian in 2013, “they won’t compensate us. So we don’t talk about it anymore.” Getting the government to come clean, so to speak, has proved nigh-on impossible. With the help of three other villagers, Shu once attempted to sue the Julong plant, although he admitted that their efforts were, in hindsight, futile. His serious health problems, meanwhile, lingered on.

Water pollution may well be to blame for Bao's lymphatic cancer.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Water pollution could be connected with Bao Jiefu’s lymphatic cancer.

Tragically, two of the other three villagers involved in the lawsuit – Duan Degui and Bian Junren – were later killed in an automobile accident, while the third, Zhu Yuehua, has since moved from Dongxing. Meanwhile, Shu’s appetite for a dispute has since waned – hardly surprising given the fact that he was threatened by goons over the course of the legal action.

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Fisherwoman Wang Jinlan lost her battle with breast cancer in 2010.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Fisherwoman Wang Jinnan lost her fight with breast cancer in 2010.

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In Wuli, where conditions are just as horrific, one local has devoted around 20 years of her life to a so-far-in-vain legal battle. Wei Dongying approached the authorities in 2004 about the village’s polluted water after local petitioning failed, encouraging in turn visits from state-sanctioned inspectors. These researchers, unfortunately, have largely concentrated on rejecting Wei’s misgivings, and all the while, the nearby industrial zone remains fully operational.

Husband-and-wife cancer patients are treated on a boat by Dr. Chen Dawei.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Wang and her husband Xu Changlian are visited on a boat by Dr. Chen Dawei.

“They say the number of deaths isn’t too high,” Wei told The Guardian. “I say, wait until someone in your family gets cancer, then tell me it’s not too high.” Partly thanks to her efforts, Wuli has been the subject of increased media attention. Unfortunately, though, this publicity has led to resident authorities becoming more threatening to outspoken locals.

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Cancer patient Wang Jinnan, who has stopped treatment and can no longer talk.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Wang’s cancer became so bad that she eventually couldn’t talk.

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A ray of hope was forthcoming in 2004 when, after Wei’s intervention, the government stated its intention to close Nanyang’s polluting premises by 2007. However, they remained open well past that date, and Wuli’s inhabitants still had to contend with blackened water, as well as air with the unmistakable aroma of blazing trash.

Wang Meifang, who refused to leave the pollution-affected village of Xinsunrui, now has breast cancer.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Wang Meifang, who refused to leave the pollution-afflicted village of Xinsunrui, now has breast cancer.

And with new chemical facilities on the horizon, there may be worse to come for Wuli’s villagers. According to Wei, none were consulted over plans to construct one new plant at a close-by road junction, though perhaps this isn’t an entirely surprising state of affairs.

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Sanjiang resident Wang Changgen has been diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Sanjiang resident Wang Changgen was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer.

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Worryingly, though, examples like Wuli may increase as China’s cities continue to expand, with polluting premises likely to be shifted to less affluent and out-of-the-way areas. As professor Lee Liu, of the University of Central Missouri, explained in 2010, “Polluting industries [in China] will keep moving inland as inland regions continue to follow the ‘grow first’ approach to development.”

Tragically, Wang passed away in 2012; his photos are now displayed in the family home.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Tragically, Wang has since passed away; his photos are now displayed in the family home.

And while a thriving industrial sector may spell good news for China’s economy, it’s nevertheless often a danger for the country’s citizens. In the city of Shizuishan, for example, factories are so polluting that they’ve been outlawed by the Chinese government. “Steelworks are closed to stop people who live next to them dying of cancer,” wrote BBC News economics editor Paul Mason in 2009. “The water table,” he added, “was last seen headed towards the Earth’s core.”

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Sadly, Wang didn't live to see his 70th birthday. He is pictured here in his final days.
Image: Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Wang pictured before his death

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Still, despite the odds being firmly stacked against her, perhaps Wei hasn’t yet given up hope that things could change. In her home lie reams of evidence and polluted water samples, and while the authorities haven’t so far been enamored by her campaigning efforts, the facts speak for themselves.

Xuanwei Power Station in ChinaImage: Simon Lim/Greenpeace
Power stations, like this one in Xuanwei, have significantly impacted on locals’ health with their emissions.

For now, though, Wei and numerous others in China’s cancer villages – thought to number as many as 459 – must contend with the reality of ubiquitous bad health. As Yanglingang resident Xie Zhengqiang gloomily told The Guardian in 2013, “Everybody here has some form of illness.”

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