What started as local news of hundreds of dead pigs found floating in Shanghai’s Huangpu River has suddenly morphed into a major story, captivating global audiences with its graphic images and air of mystery about where the corpses came from. The news has now traveled to much of the world, including the U.S. city of Denver, prompting even my brother to take notice and send me an email warning not to drink the Shanghai tap water.
According to the latest tally in this strange breaking story, the corpses of some 6,000 pigs have now been fished from the Huangpu River, mostly in the Shanghai suburb of Songjiang. Investigators believe the corpses were dumped by farmers in the nearby upstream city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province.
At the time of this writing no one was completely sure why the farmers suddenly decided to dump the bodies, many of which were presumably diseased pigs. One report said that in the past the farmers could sell their diseased pigs on the black market, allowing them to at least recoup some of their investment. But the same report said a recent crackdown has caused the black market to dry up, leaving the farmers with sick and dying pigs with nowhere to dispose of the bodies.
All the attention started me wondering why what seems like a relatively minor story should be getting such major attention. In many ways, the case seems to reflect many of the huge contrasts one sees in China, where rural elements like dead pig carcases can still be found floating through a major metropolis like Shanghai.
In this particular case, the discarding of the pigs by farmers upstream reflects a much older Chinese behavioral pattern that I like to call the “world is my trashcan” mentality held by many people, especially the older generation. Such a view sees the entire world outside one’s home as one huge garbage receptacle, with the result that people often throw just about anything, from cigarette butts to old clothing and cooking waste, out onto the nearest sidewalk or street.
Two of my most poignant memories from China in the 1980s both involved this mentality. One was my broader memory of taking trains in that time, and how everyone simply threw all their garbage out the windows. Even the train itself had the same mentality, with on-board restrooms simply consisting of a hole in the floor that let human waste fall onto the railroad tracks.
The other memory involved a day hike up a mountain in suburban Beijing with some local friends, which included a picnic. After we finished eating and were preparing to return, my friends simply took all our trash and put it into a plastic bag and placed it behind a rock. I asked one if we were going to take the trash back, prompting a look of puzzlement and a response of “Why would we want to do that?”
Of course, much has changed since the 1980s, including an economic miracle that has seen hundreds of millions of Chinese lifted out of poverty and cities like Shanghai transformed from aging time capsules to modern metropolises. With that change, many of the younger generation have picked up western habits like throwing their trash in public garbage cans rather than indiscriminately discarding it on the streets.
But the “world is my trashcan” mentality is still followed by almost everyone in the countryside, which explains why the Jiaxing farmers saw nothing wrong with dumping their pigs in the river that feeds a major city like Shanghai. I’m fairly confident that Beijing’s current public campaigns emphasizing the importance of environmental protection will eventually make all Chinese realize the importance of properly disposing of their waste. But until that happens, we can probably expect to see many more cases of dead pigs and other mysterious objects appearing in empty fields and floating up on the shores of the Huangpu and other major rivers.
Doug Young lives in Shanghai and writes opinion pieces about tech investment in China for Techonomy and at www.youngchinabiz.com. He is the author of a new book about the media in China, The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.