ZHOUTIE, China — By autumn, the stench of Lake Tai and the freakish green glow of its waters usually fade with the ebbing of the summer heat, but this year is different. Standing on a concrete embankment overlooking a fetid, floating array of plastic bottles, foam takeout containers, flip-flops and the occasional dead fish, Wu Lihong, the lake’s unofficial guardian, shook his head in disgust.
“If you jumped into this water, you’d shed a layer of skin,” he said one recent afternoon. “The government claims they are cleaning up the lake, but as you can see, it’s just not true.”
Seven years after a toxic algae bloom forced millions of people who depended on the lake to find alternative sources of drinking water, Lake Tai, which straddles two provinces in the Yangtze River delta, remains a pungent symbol of China’s inability to tackle some of its most serious environmental problems.
Since the 2007 crisis, which drew widespread domestic news media coverage and prompted a special meeting of the cabinet, the government has spent billions of dollars cleaning up the lake, the country’s third-largest freshwater body. But environmentalists say it has little to show for the money. Hundreds of chemical plants, textile mills and ceramics workshops continue to dump their noxious effluent into the waterways that feed into Lake Tai.
“Some progress has been made, but we haven’t yet reached a turning point,” said Ma Jun, one of the country’s leading environmentalists. “For many factories, the cost of violating the rules is lower than the cost of compliance.”
Also unchanged is the persecution of Mr. Wu, 46, a scrappy, self-taught environmentalist who spent three years in jail on what he said were trumped-up fraud charges — punishment, he said, for his dogged campaign against the factory owners and their local government allies, whom he blames for despoiling the lake.
Since emerging from prison in 2010, Mr. Wu has continued his advocacy work, prompting a predictable response from the authorities. He is subjected to periods of confinement at his home in Zhoutie, a village on Lake Tai. His cellphone is monitored by the police and he is barred from traveling beyond Yixing, the township in eastern Jiangsu Province that includes Zhoutie.
Plainclothes police officers often accompany him on shopping excursions, and surveillance cameras line the narrow road to his home. Vengeful officials, he said, have even stymied his efforts to find a job by warning away would-be employers. “If it wasn’t for the garden in front of my house, I’d probably starve,” said Mr. Wu, a short, pudgy-faced man who often sounds like he is shouting, even when indoors.
Reached by phone, an employee of the Zhoutie public security bureau denied that it curtailed Mr. Wu’s freedom.
The experiences of both Lake Tai and Mr. Wu speak volumes about the Chinese government’s often contradictory approach to environmental protection. Confronted by public anger over contaminated air, water and soil, the ruling Communist Party has sought to shutter obsolete steel mills, restrict the number of license plates available to big-city drivers, and recalibrate the economic-growth-at-all-costs criteria used to evaluate local officials. This year, Prime Minister Li Keqiang “declared war” on pollution in a speech to the national legislature.
But some local officials oppose policies they fear could close factories and eliminate jobs. They also prefer to deal with environmental problems their own way, if at all, which is why Mr. Wu ran into trouble with officials in Jiangsu, a relatively wealthy slice of coastal China that has prospered from its fecund, well-watered landscape but even more from industrial development, which has fouled the region’s rivers and canals.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, when he began noticing a sickly rainbow hue in the once-pristine creeks near his home, Mr. Wu began a campaign to name and shame polluting factories in Zhoutie. He collected water samples in plastic bottles, wrote letters to high-ranking environmental officials and invited television reporters to film how factories secretly discharged their wastewater at night.
In 2001, after local officials drained and dredged a canal that had been polluted by a dye plant in advance of an inspection tour from Beijing, Mr. Wu exposed their ruse — which included dumping carp into the canal and dispatching villagers with fishing rods to complete the Potemkin image of ecological recovery. In the years that followed, he became something of a media celebrity; in 2005, the National People’s Congress named him an “Environmental Warrior.”
Back in Yixing, which earns 80 percent of its tax revenue from local industry, officials were furious. In 2007, as he was preparing a lawsuit against the environmental bureau, Mr. Wu was arrested and charged with trying to blackmail a company in exchange for withholding accusations of wrongdoing. During his interrogation, Mr. Wu said, he was whipped with willow branches, burned with cigarettes and kept in solitary confinement with little to eat. “The abuse was more than I could take, so of course I signed the confession they had drawn up,” he later said.
Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future,” said environmental activists in China must walk a fine line, knowing when it is safe to push and when it is best to keep quiet. “Wu is a maverick, prone to say exactly what he thinks without considering the political consequences,” she said. “That is not the type of political participation that Beijing desires, even if he is right.”
That summer, shortly before he was put on trial, the industrial effluent flowing into Lake Tai from the 2,000 factories in the region reached a tipping point, prompting the algae bloom that forced officials in the nearby city of Wuxi to cut off water to two million residents.
Under the glare of a national spotlight, Jiangsu officials said they would spend more than $14 billion to clean up the lake and vowed to address the problem of toxic algae blooms within five years.
But the money, government researchers acknowledge, has had a negligible impact. According to the Lake Tai Basin Authority, 90 percent of water samples taken from the lake this summer were considered so toxic that contact with human skin was ill-advised. Wuxi, in the meantime, has found an alternative source for its drinking water.
In a recent interview with Xinhua Daily, Zhang Limin, deputy director of the Lake Tai Water Pollution Prevention Office, said the flood of contaminants had begun to level off, although it is still more than three times as much as the lake can absorb without killing most aquatic life.
Flushing the lake with water from the Yangtze River has improved water quality somewhat, though critics say it simply pushes pollution further downstream. These days, many polluters have built pipelines to centralized waste-treatment plants that are incapable of handling the flow. Others simply pipe waste directly into waterways through underground conduits that allow them to avoid detection.
But environmentalists say there is reason for hope. In April, the central government revised the nation’s environmental law for the first time since 1989, imposing steep fines on polluters and requiring companies to disclose pollution data. The regulations, which take effect in January, will also allow environmental groups to file public interest lawsuits against factories that break the law.
Mr. Ma, the environmentalist, said the new measures include important tools for cleaning up Lake Tai and other ailing bodies of water, but the key would be enforcement. “All it takes is the mayor or the head of a county saying, ‘You can’t touch this factory. It’s too important to the local economy,’ ” he said.
Mr. Wu said he was less hopeful, noting how little has changed in recent years despite intense pressure from Beijing and the billions of dollars spent. “A lot of that money ends up lining the pockets of local officials,” he said.
His outspokenness has taken a toll on his family, who have also been subjected to frequent harassment. Last year his daughter, Wu Yunlei, went to the United States on a tourist visa and promptly requested political asylum. “When I was younger, I didn’t understand what my father was doing and I was often angry about the trouble it caused us, but now I’ve come to appreciate it,” she said in an email.
Once content to focus on the environment, Mr. Wu now believes that healing his beloved lake requires more sweeping change. “If with all their wealth, the Communist Party can’t clean up this lake, it tells you the problem is much bigger,” he said. “I’ve come to realize the root of the problem is the system itself.”