Not In My Backyard

China’s Environmental Conscience Fights Back

The Chinese government’s relentless push for rapid economic development is finally hitting a formidable roadblock: rising environmental consciousness among Chinese citizens concerned about the effects of pollution on their health and well-being. In the past year alone, scores of Chinese have taken to the streets to protest industrial projects in their towns, giving shape to the NIMBY — or “Not in My Backyard” — phenomenon now burgeoning across China.

These demonstrations have taken place in blatant defiance of local governments and escalated at times into violent confrontations with police, indicating a notable shift in the Chinese government’s relationship with the public. Unabated environmental degradation has chipped away at the tacit compact between the government and populace — that citizens would dutifully comply with the government in exchange for a better quality of life — due to the growing notion that a better quality of life entails not just greater economic freedom but also a clean environment in which to live.

“[Chinese citizens] are questioning whether an increase in material wealth really means an improving quality of life,” explained Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor at UC Irvine who specializes in modern China.

Strikingly, many of the protesters have come from China’s rapidly growing population of middle-class urbanites. “With rising incomes and education, there is a greater awareness of these potential environmental threats and concerns about health,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, an assistant professor at Yale University who specializes in Chinese politics.

Indeed, middle-class Chinese are growing increasingly outspoken against the government’s constant prioritization of investment and profit over public health and safety — or “the way in which modernization has been achieved,” as Wasserstrom put it. In recent months, angry protesters have succeeded in forcing local governments across China to suspend industrial projects — but their achievements have proven to be shaky, calling the prevailing narrative of NIMBY victories into question.

In 2007, protests erupted in the southeastern coastal city of Xiamen against Taiwanese business plans to build a chemical plant that would produce paraxylene, or PX, a toxic chemical used in the production of plastics and polyester. Mobilized by a mass text message that called for a public rally and compared building the plant to dropping an atomic bomb on the city, thousands of mostly middle-class Chinese demonstrated for days against the proposed plant. The local government finally relented and agreed to suspend the project. The outcome was celebrated as a triumph of the public will, and PX became a “symbolic target for activists everywhere,” as John Ruwitch and David Stanway stated in a Reuters article.

The Xiamen protests were a pivotal milestone in Chinese environmental activism, and, according to Weiss, “the initial precedent that people refer back to, particularly the use of text messages and the degree to which the government and local authorities were taken by surprise and quickly felt that they needed to make concessions in order to placate these concerns.” Wasserstrom agreed, calling them the “logical starting point” for the NIMBY phenomenon. However, it suffered a setback a year and a half later, when the government relocated the $3.6 billion plant to the nearby, smaller city of Zhangzhou. There, sporadic protests among residents were unsuccessful.

Similar cases cast doubt on the ultimate outcomes of the recent string of public “victories” over local governments concerning industrial projects. In August 2011, some 12,000 residents demonstrated against a chemical factory in the northeastern coastal city of Dalian, prompting an official government promise move the plant. But the factory has since quietly resumed production. Once protesters disperse and public uproar dissipates, government concessions appear to have little credibility. It would not be surprising, then, if the proposed $8.8 billion expansion of a state-run petrochemical plant in the coastal city of Ningbo continues as planned, despite a government pledge to cancel the expansion after days of fierce protests this past October.

The Ningbo demonstrations were the latest in a cluster of environmental protests that took place shortly before early November’s 18th Communist Party Congress — a once-in-a-decade affair that determines the next generation of party luminaries. Rising environmental activism will likely be a major challenge the incoming leadership will have to confront. According to the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences, the number of environmental protests has increased at an average rate of almost 30 percent annually for the past fifteen years.

Until now, the government’s response to the recent environmental protests has been characteristic of its official “stability preservation” policy. This policy aims to maintain social stability at all costs, including the use of force if necessary. In what has become a familiar pattern, local governments have taken coercive measures to suppress the protests — but when those measures proved unsuccessful, authorities capitulated in a matter of days, choosing to defuse the protests instead of risking escalation.

According to Wasserstrom, the “localized” nature of the protests might explain this conciliatory strategy, or, as Weiss offered, the fact that they are “potentially less socially destabilizing and aren’t seen as a high-level threat.” But it is important to keep in mind, as Yueran Zhang suggested in a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, that local governments might have backed down more out of a desire to restore stability than out of genuine respect for the public will. Perhaps the recent demonstrations should then be seen as victories not for the protestors, but for stability preservation.

Ironically, the government’s stability preservation approach has likely only fueled a “self-perpetuating cycle” of protests, as the Tea Leaf Nation op-ed further observed. Activists have learned that they can only wring concessions out of the government if they organize mass demonstrations. Yet even then, the concessions may only be provisional measures designed to appease the protesters, as in the case of Dalian. This dynamic only intensifies mistrust between the government and the public, underscoring the basic unsustainability of the government’s approach to the NIMBY protests.

It is clear that China desperately needs institutionalized channels for the public to voice its concerns before major projects are approved, as well as a more transparent decision-making process. By taking public input out of the equation, the government has only invited direct confrontation and incurred massive costs from having to handle street protests and cancel multibillion-dollar projects.

However, there are heartening signs that the government is reconsidering its problematic approach to the NIMBY protests. It recently announced that all future industrial projects will have to pass assessments of their risk to social stability before they begin, in the hopes of reducing the number of mass protests. “We are beginning to see a ‘not in my backyard’ phenomenon,” Zhou Shenxian, the Chinese environment minister, acknowledged at a news conference held in conjunction with the 18th Party Congress. The government also pledged to increase transparency and public participation in decisions surrounding major industrial projects.

“It’s these types of concrete procedural changes that might pave the way for less of this particular type of protest,” Weiss explained. Still, it remains to be seen whether the government will actually follow through with this change of policy. “We have to see how well these procedures are implemented, and what kinds of other measures or tactics are brought into play by local governments, as they still seek lucrative deals and can potentially subvert this more regularized process of public hearing and consent,” she continued.

To forestall future NIMBY protests, the Chinese government should fully engage the public in the planning process of large industrial projects. For what Chinese citizens really need are not hasty concessions, but a government that truly acknowledges their demands for a safer, cleaner environment.

Cindy Hwang is a sophomore in Berkeley College.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *