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Xiu Min Li Headshot

"Look for Self-Help in Time of Disaster, Not the Party"

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Granpa Hu (not his real name) said "my loyalty always lies with Chairman Mao". His red pin emblazoned with the golden head of Mao proudly hung on his left chest. It sparkled in the sun, its statement pronounced by the backdrop of his dark blue suit. Grandpa Hu wore a pair of wide-rimmed Polaroid sunglasses unusually fancy for a retired peasant. He seemed healthy and strong. His description of how his family was unaffected by the flood sounded proud and almost cheery. Grandpa Hu said he used to work for the Forestry Department, until they decided they actually need someone literate to do the job. He was told to retire early. His accent was too thick and I had to wait for my host to transcribe his words to match my speculation of what he may have said.

We were visiting Jilin City, in Jilin Province where a devastating flood pierced through homes, killed hundred of lives and brought 7000 buckets of chemicals, some empty, some explosive, into a nearby river, which then floated downstream to the Songhua River. The event renewed concerns about years of deliberate planning that situated industrial complex close to river ways for convenient access to water resources, resulting in dirty and sometimes dangerous factories becoming a time bomb in its potential dangers posed to the rivers that are also often times sources of drinking water for people near and down streams. Devastating accidents of chemical spills caused by factories too closed to rivers have happened on and off over the years, the biggest being the benzene spill in 2005 that shut off drinking water supply to millions along the Songhua River in Northeastern China, for months. Yet, the latest spill of explosive chemical buckets into the Songhua River reminded us that no accident was big enough to convince local governments to stop building new industrial parks near major rivers and what that means to people like Grandpa Hu, who lives downstream only 10 km away.

We have come here to find out about the flood, the spill, if and how they have impacted local people and what actions are being taken to address all the issues raised regarding the spill and industrial park panning. Without a strong civil society in regions like northeastern China, issues are raised in headlines but they are lost once the limelight is out.

Standing here at Jilin, cubical-styled storefronts lined the main boulevard, most busied with constructions, old and new. The real face of the town is hidden behind these storefronts. We turned the corner onto a side street next to a foul river littered with trash, among them Styrofoam, bottles, old shoes. Women in colorful dress and white hats crouched by the river, dipping their blankets in the gray water running by and beating them with wooden sticks - their primitive method of washing. New homes were being built using discarded materials that made them look shabby. The town's dilapidated condition is likely a result of its poverty rather than the recent flood.

The bodies of a couple were recently discovered during reconstruction. The neighbors nearby the river claimed that construction fund never went to ordinary people. Much was promised amid government fanfare but little materialized into results on the ground. A middle school we passed by was having a photo exhibit of the school during the flood and its subsequent reconstruction, highlighting the concerns of party officials and the heartwarming collaborations between teachers and students. The billboards were set against the school wall marking the level of water as high as 3 meters above ground. On this sunny afternoon, the school's surface seemed crusty with mud stains. But everything had been put in its proper place and its recovery is nonetheless remarkably speedy compare to the stalemate of post-Katrina New Orleans.

We then arrived at an industrial park 10 km on the outskirts of town in search of the factories that collapsed during the flood and sent thousands of chemical buckets into the nearby river. We had no address and didn't ask for direction. Our host was worried about attracting attention. After a 20-minute walk under the scorching sun on a wide boulevard lined with large chemical plants, we arrived at the last one at the end of the road. I was told that the buckets came from two factories adjacent to each other. But one never got much mention in media report because it has strong "back table" or backing in the local government. The factory that was widely named in the news reports did not have glided signs proudly bearing its company name like every other plant in the park. Instead, an old wooden pane was hung on its metal gate and bore the company's name in clumsy handwriting - New Asia Strong Biochemical LTD. The company's 23.6 million assets were built with a customer base that reaches every continent.

The company seemed to be operating normally. The famous blue buckets were stacked up on its vast unpaved ground. Our host explained that the company boss believed his company was simply a victim of an unfortunate natural disaster. He had wanted to move his company away elsewhere where his products are sold to but was persuaded to stay, by the local government. I thought, the company really deserves nothing less than a banquet thanking him for his tax contribution to the county, much the same as what the Dalian government did for the China National Petroleum Corporation after the biggest oil spill darken the city's shoreline and gripped the nation's headline for weeks.

There wasn't much to see after all. The river where the explosive chemicals once floated in was still stingy and grey. But that was nothing unusual compare to most rivers in China, despite its utility as drinking water for tens and thousands along the river. As we walked towards the exit of the industrial park, new plants were being constructed on both sides of the boulevard - another chemical plant, and a food storage and processing plant, all bearing the promise of growth and prosperity. Another red banner loosely hung on the gate of one of the factories - "Look for self-help in time of disaster, not the party".