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Local officials in China in muddle over protests

Xia Youzhi

Readinch

Major environmental protests over the past five years have received an inadequate response from local governments.

article image

Protests against a PX plant in Dalian in 2011. (Image from Global Voices)

 
If you were to look at a list of environmental protests which have occurred in China over the last few years, and organise them by purpose, organisation and government response, you might find the latter category particularly interesting.
 
Starting from the 2007 Xiamen PX protests, governmental reactions to demonstrations have generally fallen into three categories. The first is compromise, as shown by Xiamen, Shifang, and Qidong, where the original projects were either suspended or moved to a different location.
 
The second type of reaction is a short-term fix, as seen in the north-east city of Dalian. In August 2011, a hurricane broke down the breakwater of Fujia Petrochemical company, the largest PX producer in China, placing the entire city in danger. Facing protests from the city's residents, the local government pledged its commitment to halting all work there and rectifying the situation, before later relocating the plant. 
However, news later came that Fujia Petrochemical had resumed work at the original plant. During this time, the greatest comedians in north-east China began making endless jokes using the term "hoodwinking", which swept across China; it is obvious there was a reason for such jokes.
 
The third kind of reaction is deadlock, as shown by the battle over the Panyu waste incineration plant, where the government reached a stalemate with the local population. The project was not cancelled, but neither could it begin. It became a long, drawn-out struggle.
 
The reaction of Chinese society is also worth examining. Against the background of recent public protests in Ningbo against the expansion of a PX project, some scientists have been teaching people that petrochemicals are very important to both the national economy and to people's livelihoods, and that they must be produced. The technology is also being improved, making it less toxic, they say. The implication is that it really just helps the common man. 
 
The scientists also cite many foreign examples as support for their position. They suggest that PX companies which chose to set up factories on the peripheries of cities were happily accepted by foreign citizens and that this is sufficient to prove such plants do not pose a menace to local communities. 
 
As far as I can see, this logic is fuzzy. Scientific enquiry can prove whether a factory is harmful or not, but if among the numerous benefits locals find a negative, this negative might be enough for them to reject the project entirely. First and foremost this is a question of rights, and to some extent a question of weighing up the benefits. Compared with chemical plants, the real estate industry is even cleaner and less harmful; if the logic of those scientists continues to hold sway, there will be no place left for protesters to stand.
 
In every environmental protest, there is always someone who talks about "Not In My Backyard", or "nimbyism". A few years ago, a popular episode of the American drama Boston Legal depicted a similar story. The inhabitants of a town opposed the construction of a nuclear power plant, and took the plant to court. The nuclear company's lawyers brought out lots of evidence to prove that the plant was clean and harmless, which the judge found very convincing. The plaintiff's lawyer then reminded the judge that his mother lived in that very town, at which point the judge completely reversed his position. 
 
This exaggerated plot explains the basic spirit of the nimby movement: if it's not near me, then I don't care. Everyone has to use electricity, everyone has to wear clothes made from petrochemicals, everyone must dispose of waste  but not everyone lives by a nuclear power station, chemical factory or waste incineration plant. 

See also: The psychology of climate change: it's in my backyard now
 
From ascientific standpoint, this kind of reaction is unreasonable. But we live in a world which is not at all like the arguments of scientists, transparent and even. Our caution and fear reflects what we experience in our lives. Those with more information, the big players such as chemical plants, nuclear power stations and local governments, rarely consider transparency to be an obligation.
 
Comparing the reactions of government and community, you can see a systematic error. Local residents believe that environmental issues should be agreed upon by local residents, but local governments maintain a monopoly over industrial planning. Nimbyism is used to explain away local residents' protests; it encourages people to conclude that the world wouldn't be able to continue if everyone acted the same way. 
 
This promotes the wrong impression; that the protests are based on irrational fears. The reason this kind of impression is wrong is because the main aim of these protests isn't necessarily the halting or relocation of such projects. The protests will, in fact, lead to renewed negotiations. The big players will be forced to release more information, or to select different technologies, or to pay more in exchange for the approval of local residents. But this will only happen if they not only listen to the protests, but also understand the logic behind them.
 
This is a guest blog by freelance journalist Xia Youzhi

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