Environmental protests growing 30% every year in China
- Staff Reporter
- 10:55 (GMT+8)
Protests concerning incidents of environmental pollution in China are growing by an average of 29% every year, reports our Chinese-language sister paper Want Daily.
At a recent meeting of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, Yang Chaofei, vice chairman of the Chinese Society of Environmental Sciences, said that the number of major environmental incidents soared by 120% last year due to a number of emergencies involving heavy metals and other hazardous substances.
The situation is leading to a rise in local protests on account of pollution, Yang said, with 927 cases handled by the country’s Ministry of Environmental Protection since 2005. Seventy-two of the cases involve major environmental incidents, he added.
Yang said the country lacks proper channels to allow the public proper access to environmental data and its laws on environmental protection are unclear. Regulations are also too abstract and impractical, he said, which has led to a lot of discontent among the younger generation born after 1990 that has grown much more aware of green issues.
Yang recommended setting up a platform for members of the public to get involved in discourse about the environment, as well as developing a more complete legal framework and a better system of environmental impact assessment for enterprises and government infrastructure projects. He also advocated setting up round-table forums in communities to present feedback to the government and enterprises on environmental issues.
The BBC previously posted an article on its Chinese website which implied that Beijing routinely ignores environmental issues. The public is fed up with “seemingly scientific” environmental impact assessments that usually conclude that there is no impact or that the commercial benefits outweigh the environmental costs, according to the BBC report.
The lack of faith in China’s environmental protection movement stems from the lack of public participation and channels of communication, the report said, adding that the country’s NGOs are often under the control of the government.
The current system has resulted in numerous large-scale protests which often spiral out of control. More than 10,000 people were involved in recent protests against the expansion of a petrochemical plant in the eastern coastal city of Ningbo, while nearly 100,000 people were caught up in violent clashes with the police while protesting the construction of a sewage pipeline near the city of Qidong in Jiangu province.
Both incidents received global media attention and became hot topics on the internet in China. In both cases, the government ultimately bowed to public pressure and suspended the projects.
People power in the People’s Republic of China!
After several days of growing and increasingly rowdy protests, officials in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo have backed down and agreed to call off a $8.9bn expansion at a local petrochemical plant.
Some protesters remain sceptical, saying they suspect the cancellation is a tactical move rather than a real concession to resident’s concerns about the health and environmental dangers of the plant. But it’s nonetheless another sign that Chinese citizens are becoming more willing to push back against their government – and that the government is being forced to take notice.
Toxic chemicals? No thanks!
The protest in Ningbo started last week with as few as 200 marchers. They objected to expanding the refinery, already among the country’s largest, to manufacture paraxylene, a suspected carcinogen.
By the weekend, the protest had grown to several thousand, and demonstrators scuffled with riot police as tear gas and batons were met with bricks and bottles. The confrontation attracted international attention at a particularly sensitive time for the Communist party leadership: national leaders have been preparing foran important party congress in November at which new leadership will be announced.
On Sunday, Ningbo officials said they would shelve the project. Still, some protesters continued to picket, dismissing the seeming concession as a ploy to get their opposition out of the public eye.
Not in our backyard
This is just the latest example of Chinese citizens taking to the streets to stop industrial projects. Over the past year or so, mass protests have derailed a huge copper smelter in Sichuan, closed a polluting solar panel factory near Shanghai and led to a chemical plant being shut down in Dalian. Protests also scotched a pipeline in Jiangsu province meant to dump paper mill waste into the sea.
Worried by China’s economic slowdown, government officials are pushing to boost industrial production. But an increasingly well-educated and affluent Chinese middle class is wary of projects they see as endangering their health and the environment in the pursuit of economic growth at all costs. They’re using the web and social media to get their message across, and seem more willing to vocally challenge government decisions they see as unfair.
Walking a tightrope
This presents a delicate balancing act for the central government and the Communist party. The party is quick to crack down on what it perceives as threats to “social harmony”, and officials vigorously deploy the“great firewall of China” to keep Chinese netizens from getting too much information about forbidden subjects. For example, the recent New York Times article detailing the unexplained wealth of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s relatives was quickly scrubbed from the web in China.
Still, the government seems to realise that, in some circumstances, dissent is better channelled than repressed. The fact that protests against environmental and public health threats from factories and industrial pollution are localised, with anger largely directed against local officials, gives the central government a way to defuse opposition before it grows into a broader sentiment against the one-party system.
Next week, the world will learn the names of the leaders who will guide the country for the next decade. But another, more fundamental question will remain unanswered. How long can the government continue to increase economic freedoms without being willing to trust its people with political freedom as well?
Read more: Reuters looks at how China’s experiments with “grassroots democracy” are working.
Sources: Business Week, Reuters, Telegraph, AFP, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Next Web, Reuters
Chinese police arrest over 50 out of the thousands that blocked a planned chemical plant last week in protest, driven by fears of pollution
AFP , Tuesday 30 Oct 2012
China’s eastern city of Ningbo detained more than 50 people over violent protests last week that successfully blocked a planned chemical plant, state media said Tuesday.Ningbo city said Sunday that work on the 55.9-billion-yuan ($8.9 billion) oil and petrochemical complex would stop after thousands of local residents clashed with police in a week-long protest over pollution fears.
Police detained 51 people who clashed with police last Friday, throwing stones and overturning two vehicles, the Ningbo Daily said Tuesday.
Of the 51, 13 were deemed criminal suspects, the newspaper said, meaning they could face prosecution. Police could not be reached for comment on the report.
Authorities detained another man, who was found carrying a knife, during protests on Sunday evening, said the report, which quoted Ningbo city officials.
Separately, authorities also detained a woman for spreading false rumours that a university student died in the protests, police said in a separate statement.
Environmental pollution has increasingly sparked protests across China, helped by social media, which allows organisers to publicise their causes and rally others despite tight controls in the one-party state.
Ningbo residents told AFP that the protests had tapered off on Tuesday after the government’s pledge to halt the project, despite suspicion the city might try to revive it, but the police presence remained strong.
“The streets are full of patrolling police cars,” said a resident of Zhenhai, which was the proposed site of the plant.
Zhenhai district said Sunday it would “ban” production of paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical used for plastic bottles, which had been the focus of residents’ health fears.
Seeking justice from pollution
As a series of heated protests against chemical plants, metal factories and heavy industries have rocked China, experts have called on the government to listen to the public’s objections, or risk making the situation worse.
Yang Chaofei, the deputy director of the Chinese Society for Environmental Sciences told the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Friday that China needs to consider pollution damage compensation laws as well as regulations to allow environmental lawsuits based on the public interest.
He also told the committee that polluters in China rarely see the inside of a courtroom, let alone receive a guilty verdict. According to Yang, the number of environmental protests in China has been increasing at an average rate of 29 percent per year since 1996, but less than 1 percent of the environmental disputes were settled through laws or the court system.
A ‘sensitive’ bottleneck
Environmental authorities received more than 300,000 environmental petition appeals from 2006 to 2010, while just 1,100 of these were processed at court, Yang said at the lecture. When it comes to big projects that are beneficial for the local economy, appeals from pollution victims are sometimes turned down by courts for being too “sensitive,” he noted.
This can lead to protests, which tend to begin with petitions, then when the government turns a blind eye to public appeals they grow into larger protests, said Cheng Yuyan, a law expert with the Guangdong Institute of Public Administration, who has studied China’s environmental protests.
“As the situation regarding pollution gets worse, members of the public might use this as a chance to express dissatisfaction over other social problems,” Cheng added.
Ignored and outraged
Another reason for the large scale protests is that many cases remain unresolved despite appeals to the court, said Liu Jinmei, a lawyer with the Center for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims under the China University of Political Science and Law.
Around one third of the cases the center processed never made it to the court, said Liu, with the lawsuit appeals rejected either because the projects bring in a lot of money, or the company has strong connections with the government.
“There are few organizations in China that provide pollution victims with legal consulting services for free, so most of the time people don’t know whom to turn to for help when their living environment is endangered. Some only start seeking help when the case has passed a prescribed period for litigation, or they don’t have access to essential evidence, which means they lose their cases if they are fortunate enough to even have their cases accepted by the courts,” Liu said.
One example is Xu Yu, a 62-year-old villager in Liaoning Province, who said he felt powerless after a four-year appeal with the courts against a polluting chemical plant failed to make any progress.
He said that since a chemical plant was established in the Zhangjiayingzi township, Jianping county, in 2008, there had been several major incidents of poisoning involving nearby residents, including one that involved some 300 students who showed similar symptoms of being poisoned in October 2008. Residents attributed it to pollution from the plant and attempted lawsuits, but were turned down by the courts.
“I appealed at the village, county and municipal courts but they all told me they couldn’t accept the case because it’s a case involving a group of people rather than a personal dispute,” Xu said. Hundreds of residents rallied at the township government for a protest and thousands signed an appeal letter to environmental authorities during the past four years, but the local government and courts always attempted to dodge their responsibilities, he said.
Xu tried to submit an appeal to the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing in August 2010, but was detained by county police for 10 days after he was sent home.
The environmental protests also reveal growing public demand for participation in politics, said Tang Hao, an associate professor of politics at South China Normal University. In recent years, environmental campaigns that began from small groups including environmental activists and scholars, have morphed into massive street protests involving ordinary people. Tang said, adding that fortunately, so far, the protests had not been particularly violent, but if there was no action on this issue, there was a risk that this could change in future.
Learning from the past
Some local governments are repeatedly making the same mistakes when dealing with protests, said Tang. He said they shouldn’t try to suppress public objections and label protesters as “people with ulterior motives.”
“That only makes people angrier, gives the government an excuse to use force, and leads to escalated results,” Tang told the Global Times.
Lin Yanmei, the assistant director of a Sino-US environmental cooperation project under the Vermont Law School in the US, told the Global Times that there were much more aggressive protests in the US before the country established a set of environmental laws in the 1970s, which allow for input from the public and NGOs.
“Currently in China, people tend to seek solutions to environmental issues through means other than the law, which they don’t have much faith in, and the government works toward maintaining social stability instead of encouraging legal action,” Lin told the Global Times.