China’s defending its arrest of lead poisoning victims seeking treatment.
Chinese authorities have defended the six-month detention of lead poisoning victims who were seeking medical care, saying the punishment was necessary for “public education”.
Police in Jiahe, Hunan province, blocked a bus carrying 53 villagers who were on their way to get health checks last September, according to Chinese media.
Mistakenly believing the villagers were planning to protest, the police have detained two of them for the six months since on the charge of “disrupting traffic”. Though it has since been proved that they and their children were contaminated by illegal emissions of heavy metals from a smelting factory, the local government was unapologetic.
“We may have blocked the wrong visit, but they should not have been on that road,” Li Ying, deputy secretary of Jiahe county political and legislative committee told the Beijing News, which today published an investigation into the incident.
Ou Shudong, the chairman of the local People’s Congress, told the newspaper the police roadblock and detentions were justified. “The villagers’ intentions were unclear. Even if they were going for a medical examination, they should have informed the government.”
The story highlights the feudal control that local officials exercise in much of rural China. It also exemplifies the widespread strategy of stifling dissent by making an example of suspected ringleaders, a tactic known as “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys”.
A Jiahe county report cited by the newspaper says the punishment of a few people “served the purpose of public education for the majority”. The Guardian’s calls to the county government, police bureau and communist party went unanswered.
Very considerate of them, helping to educate the majority.
As we continue to be dazzled by China’s progress and mesmerized by the success stories, it’s important to remember that this sort of outrage remains commonplace. It’s a depressing story on multiple levels. There’s the unjustifiable arrest of the innocent and the sick, and there’s also the story of the lead poisoning itself, a by-product of all that success the government would rather we not know about.
Update: For some good, balanced analysis of the lead-poisoning issue in China, please check out this excellent post. It’s not good versus evil (and I never say that it is). Some in the government are trying very hard to correct a horrible situation. To understand the forces at play, check out Ibsen’s classic of more than 100 years ago. It’s an old story.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.