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Arrival of Industry Brings Suffering to Countryside

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Doug Beach for NPR
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Geese squawk as they swim around a murky pond halfway up a wooded hillside in the Chinese countryside.

But listen carefully, and there's a background hum. It's a reminder of the interloper in this rural scene. The massive Rongping chemical factory overshadows the once-tranquil village of Xiping in Fujian province.

China's economic growth has created many winners, but also some losers. Modernization has brought with it a host of problems for the country's farmers -- among them, the loss of farmland to industry and the onset of industrial pollution.

Chinese estimates say up to 40 million farmers have been removed from their land.

Song Lingui is one of those farmers. Four years ago, the local government took his land and sold it to the chemical plant. He was given some compensation, but he says it was not enough.

"Our land was so good. We could grow crops on it throughout the year," Song says. "In the past, we could live off our land, but now that's not possible. "

Heaps of chemical waste sit on the hillside behind the plant. The trees are brown and dying -- they almost look as if they've been scorched -- and the bamboo that was once a source of income no longer grows. Song says the countryside is dying and that the villagers are suffering, too.

According to the local doctor, the number of deaths in the village from cancer has been growing in the recent years.

Spurred on by its misfortune, this quiet village has become a trailblazer in resistance. More than 1,700 residents filed a case against the plant for polluting the environment, the largest class-action lawsuit of its kind in China.

Last year, a Chinese court ruled against the factory, ordering it to pay almost $30,000 in damages. The villagers say they've received nothing so far. Meanwhile, people keep getting sick.

For its part, the chemical factory has told NPR it has started to pay damages for land pollution, and it denies any link to the cancer cases in the village.

In a phone interview, spokesman Lin Zaiqun said the waste dumped behind the plant dates back to the early 1990s and is being cleaned up gradually. Lin also maintains the factory is helping alleviate poverty in the area.

Farmer Song agrees that it's all about money, but insists that the villagers who lost their land aren't benefiting.

"That factory makes a lot of money," he says. "Government departments gain a lot of tax revenue from it, so when it comes to our problems, they just push us aside. Nobody cares about us farmers."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.