China's Polluted Rivers Yield 'Cancer Villages'

In villages along the Huai river, in eastern China, cancer rates are 50% higher than in the rest of the country.

Child playing on garbage floating in the Huai River
Child playing on garbage floating in the Huai River
Julie Zaugg

HUANGMENGYING Liu Yuzhi can barely stand. To walk, she needs to lean on a bamboo stick. Her emaciated face is covered with red stains and her hips are deformed by illness. She is 42 years old but she looks 30 years older. "About 10 years ago, I started feeling pain all over my body. The hospital diagnosed me with bone cancer," she explains in a strained voice.

Her husband had to stop working to care for her. "Financially, it's very hard," he says.

Liu Yuzhi lives in the rural hamlet of Huangmengying, in eastern China's Henan province​, on the Huai river — one of China's most polluted. Huangmengying is one of the 459 "cancer villages' in the country. "Since 1992, more than 140 out of 2,800 people in this region died of cancer," says Huo Daishan, an ecologist trying to raise awareness about this issue. "This street is called the "cancer alley" because each house holds at least one victim."

In China, about 190 million people drink contaminated water.

Victims of Huangmengying fall ill because of the river's pollution. "The water they are drinking comes from the well filled by this river. They're eating fish caught in this same river and the vegetables are irrigated by the same water," he says. In China, almost 60% of underground water, 30% of rivers and 19% of cultivated soil are so polluted that they are deemed dangerous to humans. One out of seven people in China, or about 190 million people, drink contaminated water. The soil contains chemicals like mercury, lead and arsenic.

Huai is not the only contaminated river. The Yellow River, Yangtze and the Pearl River are among the most polluted rivers in China. Their banks hold factories of paper, leather, paint and pesticides. "These factories usually throw away their waste in the river," says Huo Daishan. It's not unusual for a putrid layer of moss to cover the Huai river and for the water body to turn red or black. A couple of years ago, six peasants died after using polluted water to irrigate their crops.

Rice laced with arsenic

In addition to industrial pollution, pesticides and fertilizers used by farmers leach into rivers and lakes alongside fields, says Andreas Holback, a German biologist studying water pollution in China. Some of the toxic products in Chinese water bodies can cause cancer in digestive organs such as the stomach, throat, and the colon. Part of the rice cultivated in this region is contaminated with arsenic.

Smog on the Huai river — Photo: Zhu Haijun/Xinhua via ZUMA

To get to the village of Wazi, which lies about 20 kilometers from Huangmengying, people cut through rapeseed fields along a smaller river. Its grayish water is full of trash: old, torn clothes, plastic bags, used notebooks. "We asked local authorities to come and pick up the trash but they told us it was too expensive. So we have no choice but to throw everything out in the river," says an old man from the village. According to a 2013 study by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the cancer rates in the area along Huai river were 50% higher than in the rest of the country.

China's Erin Brockovich

Facing environmental disaster, some have chosen to resist. Wei Dongying is one of them. She lives in the village of Wuli near Qiantang river, which borders 300 textile factories that manufacture clothes for Western labels and routinely discharge sewage into the water. Wei Dongying, often called China's Erin Brockovich, started investigating the deaths of her neighbors in the early 1990s. "More than 60 people died from cancer between 1992 and 2004 here. After that, the government stopped providing data," says the 47-year-old fisherwoman as she wanders around the factories built right behind her house. "But last year only five to six villagers died of cancer."

The cancer rates in the area along Huai river were 50% higher than in the rest of the country.

The air is saturated with the smell of detergent and chemical products. Wei Dongying has collected dozens of samples of polluted water. She also has a large collection of photographs she took over the years. Some show boiling black water spurting out of a factory pipe. Others reveal a canal full of orange-colored water. "Today, factories take care not to pollute during the day but when I'm fishing at night, I can see them pumping waste into the river."

In June 2015, she filmed a worker at one of the factories saying that his employer has two pipes, one for treated water and another for polluted water. When environmental inspectors pay a visit to the factory, they show them the clean pipe but the rest of the time they use the dirty one.

Wei's activism has made her a target. Her phone is under surveillance and she has been arrested dozens of times. Last December, she says she spent 10 days in prison for filing a complaint against a detergent factory. "The government is obsessed with economic growth and, meanwhile, we ordinary citizens pay the price," she says.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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