Five days of rowdy protests in a southern Chinese city against a planned chemical plant have forced the authorities onto the back foot and underscored that breakneck economic growth no longer rides roughshod over public opinion in the world's second largest economy.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that policymakers are incorporating environmental issues into their planning, nor that such protests, which can turn violent and challenge the writ of local government, are a passing phase of China's industrialization.
On Sunday demonstrators overturned and torched vehicles while police in riot gear resorted to clubs and teargas to impose order on the streets of Maoming, in Guangdong province.
By Monday the local government was taking a softer line. “We will not make a decision contrary to public opinion” on whether to build a new plant to make paraxylene (PX), a chemical used to make plastic bottles, it said on its official microblog site.
The unrest in Maoming is the latest in a series of recent protests against PX plants and other potentially polluting factories around the country. Many have succeeded: five major projects have been canceled in the past two years in the face of local opposition.
“Environmental protests often succeed if they are big enough,” says Wang Canfa, an expert in environmental law at the University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. “Some local officials do not understand that force cannot solve everything. People today are more aware of their health and of the environment.”
An opinion poll last year by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai found that 77 percent of urban dwellers said they thought environmental protection was more important to China now than economic development.
But even environmental activists are not always happy to see industrial projects halted by public pressure.
“Either a project gets forced through without proper public consultation or review or it gets scrapped, also without proper review,” says Ma Jun, head of the Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs, a prominent Beijing think tank.
Neither outcome is a success, he argues. “We need a new form of environmental decision making” to take account of public opinion “or else we will continue to have problems like Maoming.”
Listen more, says PM
Some of China's top leaders appear to have got that message. Only last week, in a speech in Inner Mongolia on the importance of “mass work” – outreach to the citizenry – Prime Minister Li Keqiang insisted that the government “must listen more, even when we do not like what we hear.”
And a commentary published Wednesday in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist party, argued that if local authorities “devoted the same passion to mass work as they do to development it would not be difficult to eliminate barriers and misunderstandings” in situations such as Maoming.
Environmental problems, though, are just one part of a broader question that Chinese officials face, says Gong Wenxiang, a professor of journalism at Peking University.
Local officials are often torn between their two top priorities, economic growth and social stability, the key criteria by which their performance is judged by superiors. That is a tough call, especially when the popular mood in China is changing and more affluent urbanites are no longer ready to trade their health for more jobs.
In the end, Prof. Gong says, most officials put their political interests on top. “To crack down” on public protests against a new factory “is the worse choice, because it risks social instability and that is a danger to their positions,” he suggests.
In the face of unrest that might draw unfavorable judgment from higher authorities, “it is easier for an official to cancel a project and relieve public pressure,” agrees Prof. Wang.
Factories put on hold
That is what has happened in a number of cases over the past two years. Street protests forced officials to cancel PX plants in Kunming in southwestern China and in Ningbo on the east coast; to scrap plans for a paper mill in Jiangsu in southern China; to abandon a copper processing project in Shifang, Sichuan province; and to halt construction of a lithium battery factory in Shanghai.
That does not sit well with environmental activist Ma. “Allowing these questions to be decided by street action is not the best way forward for China,” he says. Instead, he argues, the law should offer opportunities for consultation with affected citizens.
Since Jan. 1, a new law requires developers of all big industrial projects in China to publish full environmental impact assessments. But it gives the public only ten days in which to lodge comments on technical documents that often run to hundreds of pages.
And local governments often finesse their obligation to submit industrial plans to public scrutiny by consulting small groups of experts instead of a broader range of stakeholders.
When the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan province, was planning a PX plant a few years ago, it invited fewer than a dozen environmental activists and scholars to a closed door meeting, refused to show them the project’s environmental impact assessment and dodged tough questions, according to Yang Yong, an environmental scientist who attended the symposium.
“People protest against these PX plants mainly because there is not enough public information about them,” Mr. Yang says.
“If there were open channels for public complaints, and if people could raise their problems openly, there would be fewer demonstrations,” adds Wang. “But without those channels, and with problems left unaddressed, there are going to be more and more protests.”