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Flood of dead pigs, trickle of answers in China

Wednesday - 3/20/2013, 8:02am  ET

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 13, 2013 file photo, a worker hauls away bodies of dead pigs with a net in Zhonglian village of Jinshan district in Shanghai. In the nearly two weeks since thousands of pig carcasses started littering a river running through Shanghai, its residents have been told not to worry. What they haven't been given are convincing explanations behind the deaths and the dumping. The lack of clarity about the nearly 14,000 dead animals in a river system that supplies drinking water to the Chinese financial center has spawned both theories and dark humor: Residents joke that they can turn on their faucets and get pork broth. (AP Photo/File) CHINA OUT

DIDI TANG
Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) -- The pig carcasses -- about 14,000 of them -- have been floating down rivers that feed into Shanghai for nearly two weeks. The city's residents have been told not to worry, and not much else.

Where the pigs came from, how they died and why they suddenly showed up in the river system that supplies drinking water to a city of 23 million has not been explained. Officials have told residents their drinking water is safe, while authorities have censored microblog posts suggesting that the public organize peaceful protests.

The official response reminds many of the government silence that surrounded previous health concerns, from the SARS epidemic to bird flu to contaminated milk.

"They are only giving the runaround," said Huang Beibei, a Shanghai microblogger whose revolting photographs of the pigs first prompted local media coverage and government attention. "'Who believes what they are saying?"

"Those pigs must have come from somewhere," author Li Mingsheng said. "That's a basic question, but the government still has not told us that."

Authorities have retrieved at least 13,996 dead pigs as of Wednesday, and have released daily bulletins saying drinking water in Shanghai remains within national standards.

Except for pig tallies by Shanghai authorities and one late-night news conference by a local official in nearby Zhejiang province, where the pigs are suspected to originate, no top official and no head of any government agency dealing with the environment, health or agriculture has made any public comment.

Officials so far have punished only the eight small-time hog farmers whose pigs could be traced through ear marks. The farmers in the Zhejiang town of Jiaxing, where hog farming is a major industry, were each slapped with a fine under 3,000 yuan ($480).

The central government in Beijing, which has been enmeshed in a leadership transition, dispatched a chief Agriculture Ministry veterinarian, but Yu Kangzhen's conclusion was merely that there had been no major outbreak of swine disease to blame for the dumping.

Villagers have told local media that pig dumping spiked in the wake of a police crackdown on the illicit trade in pork products harvested from dead, diseased pigs. With no black-market traders to collect their dead pigs, farmers are simply dumping them in rivers, they say. Other observers have suggested that farmers are feeding pigs small amounts of arsenic to make their skins look shinier, thus increasing their mortality rate. Government officials have not addressed either theory.

Jiaxing's vice mayor, Zhao Shumei, told reporters Friday that pigs were succumbing to cold weather, and suggested it was largely baby pigs that were dying. Critics of that explanation swiftly noted that most of the carcasses downstream have been of adult hogs and that this winter has not been harsh.

The Associated Press sought comment from the governments of Shanghai, Jiaxing and Zhejiang and from the Agriculture Ministry, but the calls were either referred to another agency or not answered.

Authorities have not censored popular jokes spreading online in China. In one joke, a resident of smoggy Beijing boasts he doesn't need cigarettes because he can simply open his window, and a Shanghai resident responds that he gets pork soup from his faucet.

But when Shanghai-based poet Pan Ting suggested in a microblog that the public take a stroll as a subtle way to complain about the dead pig tide, her posts were scrubbed and she lost access to her account.

"From hog farming to industry regulation, from animal disease control to public health and to regional coordination for investigation, every government link has malfunctioned -- except social control," said Zhao Chu, a Shanghai-based independent scholar and media commentator.

"The government is not holding itself accountable to the public," Zhao said. "Because there's no parliament or administrative law, government officials do not care about the public but only look up to their bosses -- because their positions come from above."

Government silence has played a role in several health crises over the past decade, and in allowing the SARS pneumonia to spread in 2003. SARS killed 774 people and infected thousands of others, mostly in China but also in two dozen other countries.

In the wake of the epidemic, the Chinese government revamped its public health crisis management. Not included was a requirement to tell the public. In recent years, the government was silent while bird flu spread, and while it became clear that milk and infant formula had been contaminated with an industrial chemical, killing at least six babies and sickening thousands of others.

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