Chinese officials say escaped cobras caught, but leave wiggle room

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 23, 2010 

XIANLING VILLAGE, China — Local businessman Cai Yong thought it would be a good idea to buy 3,000 cobra eggs and then hatch the snakes at an abandoned school building in homemade cages of plywood, brick and netting.

It wasn't.

Cai's plan to make money by selling cobra venom for traditional Chinese medicine fell apart when more than 160 of the serpents slithered through a hole in the wall and threw the remote village of Xianling into bedlam. Starting at the beginning of this month, cobras were spotted in outhouse toilets, kitchens, front yards and the mah-jongg parlor in this speck of a farming community in southwest China.

"I saw one in the bathroom," said Zhang Suli, the 47-year-old wife of a local corn and rice farmer. "I was scared, and I started screaming."

State media described Zhang pulling up her pants as she ran away from the toilet, but she made no mention of her state of dress during a recent interview.

The Mid-Autumn Festival holiday this week, when Chinese celebrate the season's harvest moon, hasn't been an auspicious one for the residents of Xianling.

First, there was the cobras-gone-wild story, which veered between slapstick and terror. Then an apparent government clampdown followed, in which officials declared that most of the snakes had been captured and all was well, assertions that many locals didn't believe.

Perhaps more than anything, the episode is a reminder that no problem or locale is too remote for the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to enforce its notion of a "harmonious society" in which there's no social upset. Even when it comes to cobras in the bathroom.

Walking up a path that led to the village amid small rice fields and rolling hills, Guan Xinyu paused to say that local officials were more interested in clamping down any sign of trouble than in rounding up the snakes. Like several others interviewed in the area, Guan said that while the 1,500-plus cobras that didn't escape were hauled off, he hadn't seen anyone trying to catch the ones that got away.

"The government is scared of people panicking because these snakes are dangerous," said Guan, a 64-year-old villager who does construction work in the city of Chongqing, a little less than 50 miles to the north. "I know they didn't catch all the snakes."

When a McClatchy reporter visited Xianling earlier this week, the vice mayor of the nearest town, Shijiao, was on hand to offer assurances and select the villagers whom he thought should be interviewed.

"It's safe here," said Vice Mayor Wei Zhaozhong, who'd ridden up the dirt road to the village in a police car. "We would like to talk about that."

Wei introduced a man by the name of Tan Bin.

"I think the government takes care of the people," said Tan, who claimed to have no job, although he was relatively well dressed and his cell phone kept ringing. "The upper leadership cares. They came here and took care of things."

Wei also invited the reporter to talk to Wang Yunping, who works for the local forestry department.

Wang started to explain that the villagers had nothing to worry about because the snakes that escaped were young and small.

"The snakes were only this big," Wang said, holding his fingers a couple of inches apart.

A woman in the crowd interjected, "No, they were this big," holding her hands about a foot apart. When Wei flashed a look at the woman, she quickly disappeared, but pictures of the cobras in state media tend to support her description

Officials recently have delivered snakebite serum to the village, though only the breeder has been hurt so far, and given lectures about cobras. The government of Shijiao issued a notice last week detailing how the snakes got loose and telling residents that almost all of them had been caught. A government-run newspaper in Chongqing carried a story with the same message.

All of which left Wei Yuanxiang with one pressing question: "The government says there aren't any cobras left, so why are people still seeing them?"

Wei, a 56-year-old who grows corn and tends a dozen pigs, unfolded a government statement that said that of 160 escaped snakes, 159 had been captured and one was killed. It also said, without explanation, that a few might still be loose.

"The government just wants to get this matter finished," he said.

Wei's neighbor, Luo Lizhong, said he saw a cobra last Saturday, several days after the village was given the all clear. Pointing at a spade leaning against the wall — everyone in the area seems to have one at the ready these days — Luo said he slapped it on the ground when he spotted the snake darting across his tool shed.

"I'm still happy about the Mid-Autumn Festival, but when we go out at night we have to be careful," said Luo, a 58-year-old rice and corn farmer.

His father, 80-year-old Luo Deliang, spoke up: "If we get bitten, the government will pay for the injection (of serum). But we'll be very sore."

Reached by phone, the man behind all the trouble acknowledged that he didn't have a license to raise the cobras. Cai, a 42-year-old farmer and businessman, said he got the idea to buy the eggs this August after he saw a program on TV and read a few articles about high demand for cobra venom in the traditional medicine community.

"I didn't take effective measures to keep them from escaping," said Cai, who's been bitten three times by the cobras.

He knows that villagers have reported multiple cobra sightings lately, but he insisted that those weren't his snakes.

Besides, Cai said, the government has told villagers all they need to know. "They educated people about keeping their lights on," he said, "and told them not to go out at night to avoid being bitten."

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