INTERNATIONAL: Chinese Free Speech Extends to Garbage Complaint

Trash piles up in downtown Shanghai streets, but officials there don't seem to care.

Residents and businesses, angry with the city government's failure to haul away rotting garbage piles, write letters. They show up at municipal offices and complain in person. Despite all these efforts, trash, litter and debris go uncollected.

"This is a clear violation of the law," says resident Kong Fanrong, who rants about uncollected garbage to neighbors, co-workers and anyone within earshot. "The government is lawless! They are hooligans!"

Although it's tough to fight city hall anywhere in the world, China's bureaucracy seems to be the most stubborn and resistant.

On the one hand, Chinese society seems to be evolving to the stage where citizens can express their frustrations with public officials - indeed, charge them with ignoring the law - without worrying about being carted off to jail.

On the other hand, Chinese officials finally seem to have learned the art of ignoring public protests. Predecessor governments would not tolerate even the slightest questioning of local actions (or inactions). Those who complained often would be arrested.

At virtually all levels, government leaders have become conditioned to the growing amount and intensity of complaints about environmental concerns, as well as abuses of power. As the leadership sees it, random complaints and outcries are tolerable, but politically organized groups will be crushed.

Kong is no garden variety malcontent: He's an accountant, and his friends say he's perfectly sane, rational and controlled when the subject is not garbage.

Kong lives on narrow Wuchang Road in central Shanghai, and garbage is strewn in piles not far from his doorway. Several years ago, local government officials allowed fruit and vegetable vendors to set up stalls along Wuchang Road but neglected to provide more trash containers for the sizably increased volume of organic wastes.

The trash collectors plead "not guilty." They swear that first thing each morning the contents of the one and only bin on Kong's street are dutifully hauled away. The problem: The bin is full again by mid-day, and the overflow clutters the street to the point where traffic can be blocked.

"It's a real hazard," says Kong, who watches school-bound children sidestep the trash. "In the summer, the stench is so bad you don't want to go out."

Kong's methodical accountant side can substantiate the drawn-out fight with municipal authorities. He has copies of his letters to the mayor and deputy mayor, and a government petition. And what responses?

"No answer, no answer, no answer!" he says.

Meanwhile, at the government office for Hong Kuo district, where Kong resides, an official admits that Shanghai trash collection does not yet meet all public expectations.

"Everyone has to be patient," she says. "It may be that the person in charge of that street has not been doing their job. We'll look into it."

Many months later, there still is no change.

Like many citizen activists, Kong decides to check the law and discovers that the city indeed is remiss.

"The law is very clear. You have to have a trash bin at least every 70 meters," he says. "But there is not one on my street for more than 100 meters, and all the merchants in the area dump into it every day."

Kong and some 42 neighbors signed a letter to the district government pointing out the legal requirements. Alas, no response.

"The law is on paper only," he says. "In practice, it is nothing. Here is a clear violation of the law, and not even the environmental protection office wants to pay attention."

A visit to Kong at his home finds his wife conspicuously absent. "She thinks I'm crazy to talk to you," he tells a reporter. "She only has one request: If I get arrested, will you help me get out of jail?"

Thankfully, Kong gets word that in today's China, he is not risking arrest by complaining about garbage.