For China's pig farmers, carcasses in river a sign of government's dysfunction

2013-04-07T00:00:00Z For China's pig farmers, carcasses in river a sign of government's dysfunctionTom Lasseter Mcclatchy Newspapers Arizona Daily Star
April 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

DONGHUI VILLAGE, China - The pig farmer was not in a good mood. Standing in front of barns that hold more than 500 pigs, the man with muck-splattered boots said he's been losing money as the price of pork falls and the cost of feed and other supplies climb.

When some of his pigs started dying early this year, following a series of temperature swings and rains, there was little choice but to throw them out, said the farmer, who asked that only his surname, Wang, be used. Previously, farmers in the area would have sold them to a dealer who bought dead, sometimes diseased, pigs and illegally resold them to be packaged for consumer consumption. But late last year, the government began cracking down on that trade.

"We had no place to put them. We can't sell them anymore - if we do, we will be punished," said Wang, 43. "So there's nothing we could do but dump them secretly."

The results were as spectacular as they were nauseating: More than 14,000 pig corpses were found floating in the Huangpu River and its tributaries last month. The flotilla of putrid flesh was bobbing along in a major source of drinking water for Shanghai, home to more than 20 million people and a showcase city for the nation.

The chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, has spoken repeatedly about working toward a "Chinese Dream" and a great rejuvenation of the country. But the pigs-in-the-river scandal is a reminder of the distance that lies between that lofty rhetoric and the many grimmer aspects of life in China.

Put another way, the further one gets from places like Shanghai, the dimmer the horizon.

Last week, a clutch of tall, slim models could be viewed readying for a fashion show near Shanghai's Bund promenade along on the banks of the Huangpu. A doorman with white gloves stood ready outside a Cartier boutique. At a rooftop cafe high above the street, tourists and moneyed Chinese took afternoon tea service and cigar smoke wafted through the air.

Upriver, in the pig farming communities along the labyrinth of murky waterways that feed the Huangpu, the challenges confronting China in the shadows of its economic rise were harder to ignore.

In Donghui, a speck on the map to the southwest of Shanghai in neighboring Zhejiang province, farmers spoke of a lack of money and information. With financial worries never far, locals say the decision to sell dead pigs to shady brokers was not difficult, despite the fact that it could mean dangerous meat making its way to the dinner table.

The roundup of illegal meat resellers was an effort to address one facet of China's widespread problems with food safety. But in its immediate wake, another problem formed -farmers without many resources were left with a lot of dead pigs. Officials have since pledged to expand both pickup and disposal services.

Like the men standing around him in Donghui, all pig farmers, Wang had no answer for what illness, specifically, had killed his animals this year. Asked about the government's approach to the situation so far, one of the farmers spoke up.

"Those people sit in offices and they hear about the pigs in the river from lower levels … so how can they learn what's really happening," said Wu Qibin, 42.

The sentiments were similar in Zhulin, a village about 65 miles from Shanghai that state media has identified as a trouble spot for the pig deaths.

One farmer complained in an interview that "when there's disease we don't understand what's going on, and they (officials) don't tell us which vaccines to use."

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