As an aluminium smelter belches pollution into the hazy brown sky over Huangjiawa, a villager who used to till the land where the smelter now sits recalls a time when things were different. "Ten years ago the water in our rivers was so clean, even cleaner than the piped water is today," says Mr. Zhang, who declined to give his full name.
Today the area has one of the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world, and the wells that sustained the village for centuries have been poisoned.
But unlike other victims of pollution across China, the village of Huangjiawa has shot to national prominence as an online media campaign highlighting its plight has sparked a debate about groundwater contamination that has ricocheted all the way to Beijing. For Xi Jinping, China's new leader who will be named head of state this week, growing public anger over environmental deterioration is set to be a key test of his leadership.
Chinese citizens are increasingly turning online to vent their anger over pollution – and the government has been forced to respond. When record-breaking smog blanketed northeastern China in January, the Chinese public knew about it instantly because of the pollution apps that many have on their smartphones, and the government in Beijing rolled out new anti-pollution measures within days.
The debate over groundwater pollution in Weifang prefecture, where Huangjiawa village is located, was sparked by a short, pointed microblog post earlier this month on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog service. It quickly went viral, and recently the issue of water pollution has been raised on primetime television and elicited an admission of the existence of hitherto hushed-up "cancer villages" from the government.
In the initial Weibo post, activist Deng Fei accused aluminium smelters in Weifang of illegally pumping wastewater underground into pressurised wells. The issue struck a chord with Mr. Deng's 3 million followers. More than 70 per cent of China's groundwater is seriously polluted, which scientists say has resulted in higher rates of cancer and other illnesses.
During the lunar new year, dozens of Mr. Deng's followers posted images of the polluted rivers and streams in their hometowns when they returned home for the holidays.
"With Weibo, any person can be a reporter," says Mr. Deng, a reporter-turned-activist who is well-known for founding a charity that provides free lunches for poor schoolchildren. "Before Weibo, information was monopolised by mainstream and official media, and there weren't many channels to express different voices."
Mr. Deng and others like him are at the forefront of a growing environmental movement that has become more powerful as local governments become more responsive to what is said online.
Last month, a Chinese entrepreneur used Weibo to offer a reward of Rmb 200,000 ($32,000) if the top environmental official in Rui'an, in Zhejiang province, swam in a polluted river. A week later, China's national broadcaster featured an interview with the squirming official, who promised to swim in the river sometime within three to five years.
In Weifang prefecture the government was quick to respond to Mr. Deng's Weibo post. As the post went viral, the city's propaganda department asked the local environmental protection bureau to investigate.