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Sunday, April 5, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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China -- Beauty And Blight On The Yangtze River

Washington Post

ON THE YANGTZE RIVER, China - Fog descends on the harbor of Chongqing, China's wartime capital. Bathed in the heavy mist, lights flicker an eerie yellow, like blinking cat eyes. Only the faint clicking of mah-jongg tiles breaks the stillness of the night.

It is a perfect setting for an exotic World War II spy movie, except for the large white gobs of industrial waste that float by in the muddy waters of the Yangtze, China's longest river.

They are a jarring reminder of the appalling toll that industrialization has taken on the environment in China, where pollution rivals that of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Many years ago, the Yangtze was such a clear blue that the French called it "La Fleuve Bleu" (The Blue River) to distinguish it from China's other major river, the Yellow River.

Over time, the waters of the Yangtze - or Chang Jiang (Long River), as it is known in Chinese - have turned brown, testimony to the

A boat trip from the hills of Chongqing, through the sheer cliffs of the fabled Three Gorges, to the small town of Yueyang on the southern banks of the Yangtze, is a journey through natural beauty and man-made pollution.

Here the limestone peaks of Witches Gorge, which rise to over 2,900 feet, contrast sharply with smoke-belching factories that ooze raw sewage directly into the river.

The boat ride is revealing about the extent of the pollution and the attitudes of ordinary Chinese toward their surroundings.

Indeed, the boats that ferry passengers to view one of the country's more famous tourist sites are among the most blatant polluters.

On the Jiang Yu - a boat carrying 500 passengers and cargo - the first assault on the senses comes when the stench of urine hits passengers boarding the boat.

In the kitchen, as the staff prepares lunch, they spit and blow their noses directly onto the floor, the same floor where bamboo baskets hold mounds of raw ground pork and vegetables waiting to be cooked.

Passengers litter the floor with peanut shells and orange peels without a second thought.

These boats can carry more than 900 passengers. They chug up and down the river, making stops at the small towns along the way, taking about seven days to make the trip from Chongqing, in Sichuan Province, to the small town of Yueyang in Hubei Province.

The average amount of waste generated per day: 3 tons. All of it - excrement, leftover food, paper, bottles and cans - goes directly into the river.

The typical cleanup routine of the dining-room staff is to scrape leftovers into one bowl and, with one deftly aimed heave, hurl the slop overboard.

There is no advance warning to passengers who might be standing along the railings on the lower decks, enjoying the scenery.

Some officials are concerned about future costs of China's rush toward development.

"If we don't do good work on protecting the environment, then we will have done a disservice to mankind," said Xiao Yang, Chongqing's mayor.

But with a mammoth hydroelectric dam in the Three Gorges likely to go ahead, some foreign and Chinese environmentalists are afraid that the murmurs of concern for the environment will be shouted down by pro-development forces.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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