Sleuthing China’s Environmental Scandals

June 7, 2012 at 12:00 am  •  Posted in Articles by

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Bestselling crime writer Qiu Xiaolong has gripped readers in the West for over a decade with his Inspector Chen character, the winsome detective who always gets the better of corrupt officials. The series’ latest novel leaves Shanghai’s murky backroom politics for an even dirtier subject: the rampant pollution of the country’s air and water.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police force returns to solve another mystery in “Don’t Cry, Tai Lake,” though the novel’s true protagonist is the beauty spot Tai Lake itself. Once lauded for its mouthwatering fish and scenery, this lake in the Yangtze delta plain in eastern China has been turned by local industries into a stinking, acrid mess—poison algae covering the immense expanse of water like a “heavy blackish-green shroud.

The image of death is fitting for a novel which grapples with the devastating cost of China’s development. The lake is symbolic not just of environmental pollution but of the moral pollution of greedy individuals and corrupt local governments chasing higher growth at any cost.

As in all of Mr. Qiu’s novels, the lovable, upright Chen battles the very fabric of China’s social degradation. In Mr. Qiu’s applauded debut “Death of a Red Heroine” (2000), Inspector Chen probes the seedy underbelly of the Communist Party after a young female “model” worker is found murdered. And in the more recent “A Case of Two Cities” (2006), he travels to Los Angeles to investigate a high-ranking Party member’s defection to the U.S.

“Don’t Cry, Tai Lake” was inspired by one of the country’s worst environmental scandals. In 2007, waste was poured into Tai Lake from factories in the eastern city of Wuxi, producing toxic algae that ruined the drinking water for millions. An outspoken environmental activist was jailed, allegedly for fraud and blackmail. This, as well as last year’s uproar in Beijing over cover-ups of the capital’s horrific air quality, makes Mr. Qiu’s novel an important and timely work.

The story kicks off when Inspector Chen lucks out on an all-expenses-paid holiday at a luxury resort for senior party officials in Wuxi. The Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center (the epitome of privilege in a Communist country) overlooks Tai Lake, but when Chen leaves the compound to taste the local specialties of lake fish and shrimp at a small eatery nearby he is told to steer clear of the delicacies by a feisty and beautiful stranger called Shanshan. The fish, she warns, are filled with toxins. As are the drinking water, local beer and tofu.

Chen is captivated by the crusading Shanshan. As the environmental officer for one of the city’s largest chemical companies, her job is to reduce the company’s polluting footprint. But as far as the company goes, Shanshan’s role is mere window dressing. Her boss, General Manager Liu, prevents her from doing her job; he’s solely driven by a desire to cash out when the company goes public. With 40% of Wuxi’s economic output coming from factories surrounding the lake, officials consider her a nuisance and her entreaties to force companies to clean up their act go unheeded.

No Inspector Chen novel would be complete without a murder, and soon enough Shanshan’s boss Liu is murdered. Shanshan becomes a prime suspect and Inspector Chen must abandon his holiday to clear her name. He is compelled by both desire for his new crush and an understanding that political foul play might be at hand.

Woven into this narrative are a number of colorful characters ranging from Liu’s mahjong-playing, church-going wife to his “little secretary” (code for a younger mistress) who also works at the plant. But the most compelling character remains Inspector Chen himself. A “rising [Communist] Party cadre,” Chen is torn between his duty and his growing admiration for Shanshan, who is labeled a dissident. He works within a corrupt system and feels acutely the compromises which must be made for progress, even within the scope of his investigations. Mr. Qiu masterfully paints shades of gray into a very Chinese tale.

At times, “Don’t Cry, Tai Lake” can seem heavy-handed. Shanshan’s conversations, in which she educates Inspector Chen on environmental degradation, are packed with statistics and data. Mr. Qiu has clearly set out to elucidate readers on a complicated topic, but they might find themselves overburdened.

Despite this, Mr. Qiu successfully burrows under the skin of contemporary China. The Shanghai-born novelist and poet has lived in the United States for over two decades and writes in English. Perhaps because of this distance, he clearly delights in describing every detail of his homeland, from the taste of Wuxi soup buns to the scent of a cup of tea. While he aptly describes the ordinary and everyday, his talent is to get to the heart of what makes power in China tick: all-pervasive guanxi, or connections.

What distinguishes the Inspector Chen novels is Mr. Qiu’s hobby of writing poetry and his love of classical poems. The calamitous state of Tai Lake inspires Chen to pen an epic poem which provides the novel with its title.

Lyrical sentiment is not just left to Inspector Chen. Shanshan describes with moving simplicity why she works to protect the environment, even at great personal cost. “At the very least people should be able to breathe pure air, drink clean water, eat good food and see the stars at night,” she implores. To some degree Chen triumphs, as he must. But Mr. Qiu also provides no neat endings and no easy solutions to a problem far too complex for two people to solve. At the end of the book the stars, like the lake, are still covered by a dark shroud.

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Photography by Cory M. Grenier

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