The pig farmer was not in a good mood. Standing in front of barns that hold more than 500 pigs, the man with muck-splattered boots said he’s been losing money as the price of pork falls and the cost of feed and other supplies climb.
When some of his pigs started dying early this year, following a series of temperature swings and rains, there was little choice but to throw them out, said the farmer, who asked that only his surname, Wang, be used. Previously, farmers in the area would have sold them to a dealer who bought dead, sometimes diseased, pigs and illegally resold them to be packaged for consumer consumption. But late last year, the government began cracking down on that trade.
“We had no place to put them. We can’t sell them anymore – if we do, we will be punished,” said Wang, 43. “So there’s nothing we could do but dump them secretly.”
The results were as spectacular as they were nauseating: More than 14,000 pig corpses were found floating in the Huangpu River and its tributaries last month. The flotilla of putrid flesh was bobbing along in a major source of drinking water for Shanghai, home to more than 20 million people and a showcase city for the nation.
The chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, has spoken repeatedly about working toward a “Chinese Dream” and a great rejuvenation of the country. But the pigs-in-the-river scandal is a reminder of the distance that lies between that lofty rhetoric and the many grimmer aspects of life in China.
Put another way, the further one gets from places like Shanghai, the dimmer the horizon.
Last week, a clutch of tall, slim models could be viewed readying for a fashion show near Shanghai’s Bund promenade along on the banks of the Huangpu. A doorman with white gloves stood ready outside a Cartier boutique. At a rooftop cafe high above the street, tourists and moneyed Chinese took afternoon tea service and cigar smoke wafted through the air.
Upriver, in the pig farming communities along the labyrinth of murky waterways that feed the Huangpu, the challenges confronting China in the shadows of its economic rise were harder to ignore.
In Donghui, a speck on the map to the southwest of Shanghai in neighboring Zhejiang province, farmers spoke of a lack of money and information. With financial worries never far, locals say the decision to sell dead pigs to shady brokers was not difficult, despite the fact that it could mean dangerous meat making its way to the dinner table.
The roundup of illegal meat resellers was an effort to address one facet of China’s widespread problems with food safety. But in its immediate wake, another problem formed – farmers without many resources were left with a lot of dead pigs. Officials have since pledged to expand both pickup and disposal services.
Like the men standing around him in Donghui, all pig farmers, Wang had no answer for what illness, specifically, had killed his animals this year. Asked about the government’s approach to the situation so far, one of the farmers spoke up.
“Those people sit in offices and they hear about the pigs in the river from lower levels . . . so how can they learn what’s really happening,” said Wu Qibin, 42.
The sentiments were similar in Zhulin, a village about 65 miles from Shanghai that state media has identified as a trouble spot for the pig deaths.
One farmer complained in an interview that “when there’s disease we don’t understand what’s going on, and they” – officials – “don’t tell us which vaccines to use.”
The man, who did not want his name published, had pulled up on a black scooter in front of a small livestock dumping station next to a trash collection shed. The roadside station, an open-air space with a slanted roof, had fresh green paint and, the farmer said, was slapped together by the government only after public outcry about the floating pigs.
A few dead pigs lay on the ground, and others were in plastic bags or feed sacks. There was a platform in a field nearby with two pits for disposing of pigs, deep wells in which their bodies decompose. Both were completely full, so farmers had dropped pig corpses on the ground nearby.
Once the pigs began showing up in the Huangpu River, the public’s wariness about official explanations became evident. The chief veterinarian of the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, Yu Kangzhen, said last month that the deaths were caused by common disease and bad weather.
Yu also said that “water in the Huangpu River, where a great number of dead pigs were found, meets national standards for drinking water,” according to an account by the state Xinhua newswire, which paraphrased him.
One online user of the popular Sina Weibo micro-blog service echoed the comments of many others: “I suggest the leaders fill a bowl with that water, and finish it.”
Closer to the ground, a man who was walking past a branch of the river in the town of Maogang, down the road from the suburbs of Shanghai, stopped to offer his appraisal. “The water must have been poisoned,” said the man, 41, who only gave his surname of Luo.
Official media has focused on the tightening of government control on the illegal dead pig racket as an explanation for the animals in the Huangpu last month.
Among the interviews featured on an extensive state TV report in late March was a former dead pig trader from Zhulin named Pan Huimin, who’d been arrested some seven months earlier. Wearing handcuffs and a yellow vest, Pan said that all of the dead pigs showing up were “100 percent” linked to the squeeze on him and his colleagues. It was not clear how Pan, in detention before the floating pigs came to light, could answer with such certainty. The backdrop of the conversation was a bare courtyard, from which the camera at one point turned to a guard tower and high walls.
In Zhulin, Pan’s relatives offered an explanation for why he’d gotten mixed up in that line of work. His wife, Hang Yaqin, hiked up her T-shirt, unwrapped a strap of gauze and pointed to a tube as she explained that she’d gotten a kidney transplant in December 2010.
Speaking in a low tone as she slouched back on a folding chair, Hang said the new organ didn’t make her as healthy as doctors had hoped, and many expensive medicines followed. The family took on more and more debt, she said, and there was simply nothing else to do.
“We just didn’t have the money,” said Hang, 45. “If we had the money, who would ever get into this sort of business?”