Beyond the Harbin chemical spill (International Herald Tribune)

Joshua Muldavin International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK – This month’s toxic spill into China’s Songhua River forced the evacuation of thousands of people; poisoned the water supply for millions in northeast China, including Harbin, the region’s major city; and now threatens the supply for as many as 70 downstream Russian cities and villages. Thus far, most analysts following the disaster have focused on the challenges faced by urban Chinese and the real problems of lax environmental regulatory enforcement, corrupt local officials and delayed sharing of crucial information with affected populations.

But they have missed two far more significant points about the spill, which involved 100 tons of benzene, a powerful carcinogenic petrochemical that causes leukemia. First, it is not a singular event but a manifestation of a much larger structural problem within China that disproportionately impacts rural areas where the country’s majority lives. And second, the world as a whole to varying degrees is implicated in this predicament, and can no longer afford to pretend otherwise.

Far from the bustling megalopolises of Beijing and Shanghai are China’s rural hinterlands – the engine and the dumping ground of China’s unprecedented economic growth and trajectory. These rural areas provide the country’s booming cities with cheap, unorganized labor drawn from extremely poor peasant communities in the midst of their own social and environmental crises. It is also here that many toxic industries are located and through which the benzene spill first flowed and will soon flow again – out of sight of the world’s media.


(Joshua Muldavin, a professor of geography and Asian studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is writing a book on the environmental and social impacts of post-Mao China’s development path.)