What started as local news of thousands 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 US city of Denver, prompting even my own brother to take notice and send me an e-mail warning not to drink the Shanghai tap water.
According to the latest tally in this breaking story, the corpses of some 10,000 pigs have now been fished from the Huangpu River, mostly in the Shanghai suburb of Songjiang District. Investigators believe the corpses were dumped by farmers in the nearby upstream city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province.
In many ways, the case seems to reflect many of the huge contrasts one sees in China, where rural elements like dead pig carcasses 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.
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 many people simply threw all their garbage out of the windows.
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.
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 modern metropolises.
With that change, many of the younger generation have picked up good 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 many people today, 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 China's current public campaigns emphasizing the importance of environmental protection will eventually make all the people realize the importance of properly disposing of their waste.
But until that happens, we can probably expect to see many more cases of mysterious objects appearing in empty fields and floating up on the shores of major rivers.
Doug Young is a freelancer from Shanghai.
China's weekly story (2013.3.9-3.15)
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