Jim Yardley of the NY Times has a very interesting article on China's environmental regulatory problems in the 9/4 edition, involving a 2004 spill into the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia and environmental orders that were wilfully ignored by local officials. (Rules Ignored, Toxic Sludge Sinks Chinese Village, NY Times 9/4/06). A lawsuit related to a pollution spill resulted in a $300,000 compensation award for the city of Baotou and an order to install water treatment equipment. However, local officials ignored the order and, instead, built large temporary wastewater containment pools next to the river. A storm this past April threatened to release the polluted water into the Yellow River. In order to avoid discovery of their failure to comply with official clean up order and to close the responsible factories, local officials broke the containment walls and released the polluted water into an area where several small villages are located. Those villages are now uninhabitable.
Maybe just as interesting, however, are the circumstances of how Yardley got his story (as he explains in the article). Initially, he got strung along by provincial officials for an interview about the matter. Then, this past July, he went to one of the villages (together with a driver and photographer) to investigate directly, even thought the village had been declared off-limits. At the village, they were pursued by a car without license plates, but they were able to escape. Subsequently, they were stopped by the police, and the driver was interrogated for three hours.
The incident actually reminds me of an encounter with rural Chinese police several years ago. We were in a small minibus that had taken us from a Beijing youth hostel to a section of the Great Wall in Hebei province. We were stopped by local police, as we later realized, probably because the minibus had Beijing license plates. We had to disembark and were asked about why we were there. They also asked us to sign a statement (in Chinese), which we refused. After about an hour, they let us go; in fact, they brought us to the section of the Great Wall that we were supposed to get to. The minibus driver had to go the police station, but he rejoined us several hours later. We suspect that he was probably being shaken down because he was bringing tourists from Beijing (to the neighboring Hebei province).
The entire episode was quite unnerving because of all the things I had previously heard about rural police corruption. On the other hand, we pretended not to speak Chinese (and they realized that we were American Chinese), which helped us to get out of having to sign anything. Our minibus driver seemed to take it all in stride - all in a day's work.